By Mike Finkelstein
If you have even a kernel of curiosity about the legend of Janis Joplin or if you simply want to see some great rock-related live musical theater, you will want to get to the Pasadena Playhouse and see A Night with Janis Joplin before it closes on August 23. Putting this production into this beautifully restored venue in Old Towne Pasadena is a superb match.
They nailed the hippie esthetic — a classy set in a classy theater. The stage was covered with some of the snazziest hippie tapestries available, an iconic Egyptian-styled chair that Janis made famous, several very groovy, fringed lamps, and of course the velvet, boas, fringes, and beads in the costuming.
This production, created, written and directed by Randy Johnson, is signed, sealed and delivered with the uncanny performance by Tony-nominated Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin.
To say she becomes Janis Joplin for the role may sound clichéd, but it was downright mesmerizing to watch Davies nail all of Janis’ mannerisms, quirks, and nuances in speech, song, and posture. Her speaking voice had the same giggling, twang and her hair even hung down from her temples just the way Janis’ did when she bent down to belt out a phrase. It seemed to me that Davies didn’t need to stretch much to carry the role of Janis Joplin.
And Davies was hardly in a talent bubble with a supporting cast of similarly powerful girl singers surrounding her as the Joplinaires. The girls also played the part of the girl group the Chantels, whose haunting gem “Maybe” was a huge influence on young Janis’ appreciation of how well music can put across powerful emotions. Yvette Cason (Aretha Franklin/Nina Simone), Sylvia MacCalla (Bessie Smith/Odetta), and Jenelle Lynne Randall (Etta James) all did justice to the luminaries they portrayed.
A Night With Janis Joplin is not a plot heavy show. In fact, the format is more or less like a VH1 Storytellers show, where the performer chooses material, introduces it anecdotally, and then performs it with a band. In A Night With Janis Joplin, Janis affably welcomes us into her life and presents us with the songs and the emotions that powered them for her. Because it’s musical theater, we get to see her talk about Etta James, Nina Simone, Odetta, Aretha Franklin and Bessie Smith, and then have these characters come out and proceed to lay down exactly what Janis is talking about.
The script is cleverly written to allow Davies to welcome us with stories from Janis’ vantage point. She leads with stories like when she and her siblings made their house cleaning chores into a production, performing Porgy and Bess and other musicals to records supplied by their mother as they worked. Following this lead-in is a great comparison of “Summertime,” sung bluesy and powerfully by Jenelle Randall and then rearranged by Big Brother and the Holding Company. The band’s version of this ubiquitous song was an early glimpse of the possibilities in interpreting traditional tunes with a rock slant. The elegantly busy bass lines, the beautiful harmony guitar lines, and the wonderful dynamics of the new version were an innovative high water mark at the time. Janis’ vocal on it was classic and to watch Davies sing it Friday was to know that she has been doing it for most of her life. She owned it. The band gave “Summertime” a real workout as they also did to “Piece of My Heart,” and “Cry Baby.”
Janis brought up the notion that songwriters ask so many good questions…but don’t answer them. The choices of songs like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “Down on Me,” and “Tell Mama,” give us a sense of what rang true to Janis in other people’s music. One major theme of Janis Joplin’s life was that though she yearned for real love, she also needed to be on stage to be whole. And these considerations were often at odds with each other. She made the point that she just might not choose a good man over a good audience. This was a person who would not hesitate to go against the grain if it meant being true to herself.
It’s impossible to think about Janis Joplin without confronting the fact that alcohol and drug abuse led to her untimely death at the young age of 27. There’s no way around the fact that she was one of the founding members of the “27 club,” which also tragically includes mega-talents like Robert Johnson, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse. Though she casually picks up a bottle once in the show, the subject of booze, drugs, and self-medication are just not part of the program. It would have been fun to listen to the spunky and insightful rationale for this behavior that Davies’ Janis could surely have supplied.
Towards the end of her abruptly shortened career, Janis severed ties with Big Brother and took on Full Tilt Boogie as her backing band. It was with them that she made some of her most appealing and tastefully arranged music. Songs like “Half Moon,” and “Move Over,” and “Get It While You Can” would have been worthy of making the cut in the production, even though “Kozmic Blues,” and “Bobby McGee” did. Still it’s six of one and half dozen of the other. The material in the production is top flight, and it’s played and sung impeccably. Davies is a true dynamo as Janis, and transcended the show into something very special.
Walking out of the Pasadena Playhouse, I felt like I’d gotten to experience more of Janis than I had anticipated, both musically and spiritually. As I watched people sporting flowers in their hair, bell bottoms, and headbands like it was a costume party, I had to once again realize that the hippie days were, at their purest, a very creative time in history, and Janis Joplin was as iconic a hippie personality as there ever will be. But those days are long gone and a show like this is the closest most people will probably come to connecting with it. I’m delighted to have known her music years before she died and to know that a show like this one does real justice to her legacy. And what could be more important than that?
A Night With Janis Joplin continues at the Pasadena Playhouse through August 23.