Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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Update: The Pasadena Playhouse has extended the run of this show until August 23.
Just a little over two years ago, a tribute to the woman dubbed The Queen of Rock first appeared at the Pasadena Playhouse. More than just the usual tribute show, what was then called “One Night with Janis Joplin” used an evening of song and conversation with Mary Bridget Davies’ Joplin to explore the roots of her music, her strong ties to traditional blues, and the passion which brought her to toss aside a middle class lifestyle in favor of the short but important life she would have in rock and roll. The show was a solid hit.
Now, after some revision and a trip to Broadway, where Davies was nominated for a Tony, what is now called “A Night with Janis Joplin” has returned to the Playhouse. In some ways the changes have added depth and balance to the show’s storyline and energy. In some others, the focus on Joplin herself has blunted a bit. Still, the end result is one enjoyable trip back to the late 60s, and the melding of musical forms which was so central to that entire period.
Randy Johnson, who wrote this homage and also directs, was specifically concerned with not just creating a classic “tribute band” kind of concert, and that still remains. What has expanded is the look at those blues – and the great performers who sang them – which so inspired Joplin to become a singer herself. In the show’s biggest change, rather than having one person try to be all of those great talents, separate members of the chorus of “Joplinaires” have moments in the sun as Etta James (Jenelle Lyn Randall), Bessie Smith and Odetta (Sylvia MacCalla), a symbolic “blues singer” representing all those lesser known voices from the past (Sharon Catherine Brown), and most especially Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone (Yvette Cason). Plus, all four gather together to be the girl-group Joplin admired, the Chantels.
With all these different and highly talented voices expressing the traditionally African-American roots which shaped Joplin’s own style (though she admits in the script that she only sounds like “a white chick singing the blues”), the structure of the production proves more balanced. Each singer had (and in this show has) her own style and structure, and it becomes a treat to see how each of these influenced specific aspects of both Joplin’s sound and her choice of repertoire.
Of course, central to the whole thing is Davies’ Janis. She looks the part, as she always has, and gives her all to the raspy joy of Joplin’s singing. In the course of the last few years that has morphed a bit. She’s no longer an imitator, with exactly the same sounds as one could find on a recording. Rather, the whole focus on matching Joplin to her influences has let a bit more creativity sneak in. Sometimes lyrics once intelligible get lost in the soaring shouts which express the energy of the moment – a shift which can be exciting or annoying. Sometimes the tune takes second place to spoken observations. Still the magnetism is there, and the feel of Joplin’s music. And there is all that fearsome energy, especially when the first act closer – a duet between Joplin’s Queen of Rock and Aretha’s Queen of Soul – rocks the house in memorable ways.
What “A Night with Janis Joplin” now offers, in ways which were more hinted at the first time through, is a demonstration of musical forces which surrounded her and moved her toward stardom. This is not a biography, except a musical one, and doesn’t touch on the things we all know came with that stardom: the lifestyle and drugs which would lead to her death at the height of both her popularity and her own personal satisfaction with her music. Once again, as with the first version, one cannot help but wonder what would have happened if Janis Joplin had had a chance to mature as an artist past age 27. But then, one could ask that of many of the most terrific musical talents of that era.
What: A Night with Janis Joplin When: Through August 16, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $45 – $150 Info: 626-356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
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