Part of the wistfulness of nostalgia is the feeling that those special moments can never be brought back. We’re too polarized, too jaded, to wise for our own good. It was suddenly put to rest by viewing One Night With Janis Joplin, at Arena Stage.
…the next stop is Broadway
Janis is one of those performers–possibly the first–that needs but a first name. Michael, Madonna, Mick, Milli…well, for various reasons. And no amount of wishing is going to bring back Janis Joplin, the ‘60s blues and counterculture icon who wowed her fans, but with the incandescent Mary Bridget Davies holding the microphone, Arena Stage turns into a veritable way-back machine. More concert performance than theatre, she headlines a show chock full of power ballads that creates an evening that crackles with energy all the way through.
Director/creator Randy Johnson presents a full slate of 24 songs that traverse Janis’ career and alternately rocks out and reminisces about her early artistic influences. And except for a few cursory sips on a whiskey bottle early on, the show never veers into the unsavory aspects of her life—substance use, depression, failed attempts at love.—though that shaped her just as much as the singers that she so admired. We never see her at her depths, only in rueful flashback mode. But we accept it, as if she dropped in from a celestial soundstage. As Janis said, ‘You don’t find the blues. The blues just get into you…’
Adding to that effect is the use of the multitalented Sabrina Elayne Carten stepping in after Janis’ opening onslaught to bring to life her female artistic guideposts. Playing Bessie Smith, she performs a powerful “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. To close the first act, Carten is wonderfully over the top as the Queen of Soul (Aretha Franklin) as she meets Janis, the Queen of Psychedelic Rock. They shamelessly challenge everyone onstage and in the audience to feel the spirit in “Spirit in the Dark.” The sultry supporting blues singers added balance and complexity to the sets in this all female vocal show.
Inserting this artistic insight lends balance to a show that could be overpowering, and admittedly gives Davies a rest from the turbo-charged intensity that is Janis. Think Ethel Merman, full throat, all the time, reaching for the back of the room.
The second act opens more soulful and reflective, with Davies talking about painting her sister’s picture and what it meant to her. The pace picks up to cover other standards and Janis’ anticipated showstoppers, “Piece of My Heart” and her #1 hit, “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Later Davies offers some hints at Janis’ heartache–how her audience has satisfied her more than any man ever has, and all she ever wanted to be was herself. But then we’re off again to Janis land, rocking as only she can.
And what a voice. No, what a sound. As she mentions, with an untrained instrument singing along to her mother’s records in Port Arthur, Texas, Janis simply sang her sound. Davies first played Janis in the 2006 production of the musical Love, and reprises her role here from last year’s Arena engagement of “One Nite…” It has easily become part of her. She effortlessly combines Joplin’s vulnerability with her unique singing style. Even her stage mannerisms—the quick turn of the head, the signature head bob, how she took a note all the way down then somehow popped it up a range to the exact note at full intensity—is astounding.
Davies was well supported musically, heck, even more than the original Janis, who rarely had the amplified power of the talented guitar and brass sections that agreeably jam along. A taut show, without the needless trappings that would diminish the shine of our misunderstood star.
Freedom’s just another word for bringing back the blues.
Be forewarned, if you don’t act soon, the blues will be real, as the next stop is Broadway for One Night With Janis Joplin this September!
Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.
One Night with Janis Joplin is presented Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW, Washington, DC 20024. from June 21 to Aug. 11. For tickets to this or other performances in the 2013 season, call the Box Office at 202 488-3300 or online.