“A Night With Janis Joplin” ends with the singer, embodied by the astonishing Mary Bridget Davies, coming back out for an “encore,” singing her blues song “Mercedes Benz”
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends
So, oh Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz
Anybody who’s listened to Janis Joplin’s albums knows that she used to introduce this comic composition of hers by saying: “I’d like to do a song of great social and political import. ”
Her joke, missing from the Broadway show, is not just an indication of her wit; it is a sly comment on – and thus a subtle reflection of — the era in which she reigned, the fervent 1960’s. It is a period that “A Night With Janis Joplin” makes little effort (save for a handful of costumes) to evoke.
The decisions to neglect her era and play down her wit are two of many choices in this show that one might question; some seem nearly bizarre. But they pale besides the unquestionably smart choice of casting Davies as Janis. It seems to take her much of the first act to warm up, lacking the husky depth of feeling of the performer nicknamed Pearl, but once Davies hits her stride in the second act — with “Me and Bobby McGee,” and its memorable lyric
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose
and “Ball and Chain” and “Kozmic Blues” — the fans of Janis Joplin’s music are in a state of bliss. And let’s be honest; this is a show for people who are already fans of Janis Joplin, the blues-tinged rock singer who died of a drug overdose in 1970 at the age of 27.
“A Night With Janis Joplin” is more or less a concert, with some patter in-between the songs that could be called monologues. In these, we learn that Janis’s mother was a talented singer in Port Arthur, Texas who decided not to move to New York for a professional career, and thereafter listened incessantly to Broadway albums like West Side Story and My Fair Lady, whose songs Janis memorized. Janis herself at one point wanted to be a painter (her artwork appears occasionally on the screen behind her.) She also read a lot as a child; her favorite was F. Scott Fitzgerald. And she loved the blues, a subject she tells us about with almost scholarly disquisition.
We don’t learn much about her life past her childhood — nothing about the psychedelic scene in San Francisco, or her experience performing at Woodstock, or her relationships with fellow musicians like Country Joe McDonald or Leonard Cohen, who wrote the song “Chelsea Hotel” about her. And there’s no hint of her self-destructive impulses, except a swig or two from a bottle of Southern Comfort. It’s as if writer and director Randy Johnson (whose credits include director of “Elvis the Concert” and producer of “Always…Patsy Cline” ) only talked to Joplin’s family, and read no biographies of her nor talked to those with whom she made music. Hell, we could learn more from watching “The Rose,” the 1979 film that marked Bette Midler’s screen debut, which is obviously (loosely) based on the life of Janis Joplin. (One clue to the sanitized biography may be that the show is “presented in association with The Estate of Janis Joplin…”)
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A sizable chunk of the evening is given over to performers who, besides serving as Joplin’s backup singers, variously impersonate the Chantels, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Odetta, Bessie Smith and Nina Simone, singing at least one each of these singers’ signature songs. The excuse for their inclusion is that these were Janis Joplin’s musical influences, and (one could interpolate) her role models as well — their lives a sign that she could be other than (as she puts it in the show) “a middle-class white chick from a family that would love to send me to college…” Nina Simone is making her second appearance on Broadway this season – she’s a main character in “Soul Doctor,” which is closing Sunday. I suspect the reason for her inclusion is much the same in both shows – to broaden audience appeal.
In any case, several of the scenes involving these divas gave me pause, especially what is meant to be a rousing audience call-and-response number right before intermission, when Aretha Franklin (Allison Blackwell), after beginning ”Spirit In The Dark,” shouts out to the audience “OK, NYC, I’ve got a surprise for you all tonight—the one, the only Miss Janis Joplin.”
While surely meant as a tribute, this could too easily be seen as an example of what we can call Blues Brothers Syndrome. In those John Belushi/Dan Akroyd films, all these terrific real-life talented blues (black) performers were treated as if they were the opening act to their fictional (white) imitators. At least in those Hollywood movies, the performers are getting some dough and some exposure out of it. But what does Miss Aretha, Queen of Soul, get out of service as an “influence” and opening act to Janis Joplin?
The representation of all these African-American talents, most of whom were big during the 1960s, invites comparison to Motown the musical, whose book is far more cringe-worthy but whose numbers are better staged, more elaborately choreographed and more exciting. (Ironically, the same choreographer, Patricia Wilcox, is credited for both shows.)
But these complaints shatter into trivial quibbles when Mary Bridget Davies, who is making her Broadway debut, takes center stage. Davies is not just doing an impersonation, though it is certainly that. She grew up on Joplin’s records, was hired to sing with the Big Brother band (Joplin’s band), and starred in “Love, Janis” Off-Broadway. It is an awesome experience to see Davies deliver such a hard-charging performance, and mind-boggling that she does it eight times a week. Mary Bridget Davies was born eight years after Janis Joplin’s death and has now lived eight years longer. She’s a talent in her own right, and she’s surely here to stay.
A Night With Janis Joplin
At the Lyceum Theater (149 West 45th Street)
Written and directed by Randy Johnson; choreography by Patricia Wilcox; music director/ conductor, Ross Seligman; original music arrangement and direction, Len Rhodes; music coordinator, Howard Joines; sets and lighting by Justin Townsend; costumes by Amy Clark; sound by Carl Casella; projections by Darrel Maloney; hair and makeup by Leah J. Loukas
Cast: Mary Bridget Davies (Janis Joplin), Taprena Michelle Augustine (Joplinaire/Chantel/Bessie Smith/Blues Singer), De’Adre Aziza (Joplinaire/Chantel/Nina Simone/Odetta), Allison Blackwell (Joplinaire/Blues Woman/Aretha Franklin) and Nikki Kimbrough (Joplinaire/Etta James/Chantel).
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.
Tickets: $49.00 – $140.00. Rush (day of performance): $30
Combination of the Two
Down on Me
Down on Me
Piece of My Heart
Today I Sing the Blues
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out
A Woman Left Lonely
Spirit In The Dark
Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)
Little Girl Blue
Kozmic Blues/I Sahll Be Released Medley
Me andBobby McGee
I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven
Ball and Chain
Stay With Me
I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven