Live Musical Theatre: “One Night With Janis Joplin” at the Pasadena Playhouse

By Don Heckman

Pasadena, CA.  The Janis Joplin legend surfaces once again in the powerful music and dramatic story telling of One Night With Janis Joplin at the Pasadena Playhouse. It’s shown up earlier in the film, The Rose, and the theatre piece, Love, Janis.  But never before with such convincing musical and historical authenticity.

Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin
Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin

The role of Janis is portrayed by Mary Bridget Davies, who also played the lead in Love, Janis.  And, although the physical resemblance leaves something to be desired, Davies has done a stunning job of capturing the sound, the phrasing, and the intense musical passion of Janis, the original.

Created, written and directed by Randy Johnson, One Night…imagines a performance by Joplin in which she sings from her classic songbook and recalls her early life and its creative influences.  Her history is further illuminated by the far-ranging performances of Sabrina Elayne Carten in the role of “Blues Singer,” vocalizing the memory of Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and Bessie Smith.  Supporting the nearly two dozen musical selections, the three-voice, back-up singing Joplinaires, and the eight piece band led by Music Supervisor/Bandleader/Guitarist Ross Seligman bring the late ‘60s Joplin musical era vividly to life.

For anyone, including this writer, who had the good fortune to experience the Joplin mystique live and in person, One Night…called up irresistible memories, especially in songs such as “Piece of My Heart,” “Ball and Chain,” “Mercedes Benz” and “Me and Bobby McGee.”  And given the amount of silver-colored hair in the packed house audience, one suspects that a majority of the enthusiastic listeners also spent time with Janis in places such as Winterland and the Fillmores West and East.  Maybe even her breakout appearance in 1967’s Monterey Pop.

The Joplinaires, Mary Bridget Davies and Sabrina Elayne Carten

The show’s visual design, with its moving platform, multi-leveled staging and flashing lights wasn’t exactly a replica of the Joshua Light Shows at the Fillmores.  But the results were nonetheless visually impressive (even with the absence of the cannabis fragrance that so often permeated the Fillmore events).

So too were the interstitial narratives by Davies, recalling Janis’ early musical experiences as well as the intimacies of her philosophical beliefs.  Although she often amusingly described herself just a “white chick singing the blues,” Janis was far more than that, and Johnson’s script has convincingly captured the remarkable breadth of her beliefs, her character and her music.

At its best, One Night…is neither a tribute show nor a simulation.  It’s a persuasive view of a memorable chapter in 20th century life and music as seen through the prism of Janis Joplin’s vivid, but far too short life.

* * * * * * * *

“One Night With Janis Joplin” continues at the Pasadena Playhouse through April 21.

Photos by Jim Cox courtesy of the Pasadena Playhouse.

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