Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
The Queen of Rock, Roots and All: “One Night with Janis Joplin” at Pasadena Playhouse
We tend to forget, as we look back at the youth culture of the late 1960s, that the musical forms we now attribute to that era all grew out of other, older elements of American musical style. No argument, there were great young musicians of that period whose music has become the soundtrack to an entire moment in history. Still, it does not diminish their innovation or artistry to realize that virtually all built on elements of what had come before. That, and a couple knockout performances, creates the fascination and delight of “One Night with Janis Joplin,” now at the Pasadena Playhouse.
If this were just another tribute concert, that might be pleasant, but would be chalked up in the end as a simple moment of nostalgia. Randy Johnson’s “One Night with Janis Joplin” is more. Yes, the central feature is Mary Bridget Davies’ jaw-droppingly accurate portrayal of that most singular and exciting performer, but this balances this with a longer musical story by looking at what inspired Joplin to become Joplin, not so much as a person, but as a musician.
Her roots in the blues tradition (though, in the show, she admits she only sounds like “a white chick” singing them) influenced her choice of songs, and the way she sang them. Getting the feel and the sound of Joplin right, and handing the audience the background which made all that happen, creates an absolutely delicious chance to relive a moment of musical magic.
Sabrina Elayne Carten is The Blues Singer, remarkable in her own right as she tackles the repertoire of Bessie Smith, Etta James, Nina Simone, and eventually Aretha herself, laying the groundwork for the what Joplin would become. The juxtaposition of these songs and this style to Joplin’s raucous energy works astonishingly well. Backed by a terrific, talented band, accompanied by a chorus of “Joplinaires” (Tricia Kelly, Shay Saint-Victor and Kimberly Yarbrough), one gets more than just a richly rewarding trip down memory lane, but a powerful musical education.
Still, in truth, all this would be for naught if it wasn’t for Davies. With a voice which seems to be pulled up from the soles of her feet, and an energy which whips her about the stage, she would be fun to experience even if that particular timbre didn’t send shivers of recognition down the spine. By the moment she rasps out “Come on, come on, come on…” and starts “Piece of My Heart” she has already convinced the audience that a genuine Joplin is in the house. That conviction never wavers.
Notice must be paid to Darrel Maloney for a fascinatingly evocative set of projections which tower above the performers on Justin Townsend’s concert stage set. Costumer Jeff Cone has Joplin’s look, and the period, down cold: no stereotype or cartoon, just accuracy. Nothing intrudes on the convincing nature of this whole enterprise, which is directed by its creator.
By its very nature, “One Night with Janis Joplin” is loud and rough. It does not touch on Joplin’s personal life much, the drugs which killed her, or anything else much which is not music related. This is about the sound – what it meant, where it came from, and what it has left us. If you are ready for the raw power, and edgy intimacy that brings with it, then this is a show for you. Have fun!
Be aware that an alternate (Tricia Kelly) takes the place of Davies as Joplin on Saturday matinees and Sunday evenings, and that Kimberly Yarbrough becomes The Blues Singer on Tuesday evenings and Sunday matinees.
What: “One Night with Janis Joplin” When: Through April 21, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave in Pasadena How Much: $69 – $107 regular, $105 – $145 premium Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org