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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Lyceum


  Mary Bridge Davies/ Ph: Joan Marcus

You don’t have to be a Janis Joplin fan to have a great time at A Night With Janis Joplin. I went in knowing that she was one of the great rock singers, knowing a few of her hits, and knowing that she died young of a drug overdose. This rousing rock concert (with some biography thrown in) sheds light on Joplin’s musical influences and features a dynamite performance by Mary Bridge Davies in the title role. She gets stellar support from a rockin’ band and four supremely talented “Joplinaires.”
These Joplinaires aren’t just backup singers. The four women double as the blues singers who strongly influenced Joplin. Taprena Michelle Augustine plays Bessie Smith. De’Adre Aziza plays Nina Simone and Odetta. Allison Blackwell is a blues singer and Aretha Franklin. And Nikki Kimbrough is Etta James. During the first act, Davies’ Joplin recalls her middle-class childhood in Texas and her days in Austin, where she was supposed to be going to college but was more interested in partying and performing. Writer-director Randy Johnson includes just enough biographical info while weaving in performances by the blues singers who inspired Joplin.
It was only when Joplin moved to San Francisco that she became “a rock 'n roll chick,” as she puts it, when she sang with the rock group Big Brother and the Holding Company. Fortunately, her raspy, soulful voice was just as potent backed by electric guitars. When Davies unlashes her raw, throaty voice on “Piece of My Heart,” with the band going into overdrive, it’s a thrilling moment. Another high point is the first act finale, in which Blackwell belts as Franklin and is joined by Davies’ Joplin on “Spirit in the Dark.” Together the Queen of Soul and the Queen of Rock, backed by the top-notch band, raise the roof.
Strangely enough, the band members aren’t mentioned in the program. Perhaps the makeup of the band changes. The musical director is Ross Seligman, who has been with the show since its premiere at Portland Center Stage in 2011. There have been several productions since then, and Johnson has fine-tuned a tight two-and-a-quarter-hour production.
The second act has a few slow numbers that aren’t as exciting as the others. But the lovely “Me and Bobby McGee,” Joplin’s only number one hit, certainly doesn’t disappoint. Davies never holds back, but she really goes for broke with her no-holds-barred rendition of “Stay With Me.” As the saying goes, she leaves it all out there. It’s a miracle that Davies doesn’t blow out her voice rocking out as Joplin seven shows a week. (On Wednesday matinees, Kacee Clanton takes on the title role.)
If you feel like you’ve already seen a musical about Janis Joplin, you may be right. Love, Janis had a long run Off Broadway, closing in early 2003. Davies starred in the national tour. That show was quite different, as I recall. In any case, whether you’re a lifelong fan of Joplin or someone who is wary of going to a musical that is largely a rock concert, A Night With Janis Joplin is definitely worth seeing. And though we have a long winter to get through first, I hope Davies and Blackwell will be remembered when the Tony nominations are decided in the spring.


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