"This is Janis’s show, Y’all better listen to me motherfuckers!"
These are among the first words spoken by actress Mary Bridget Davies. And with these words, she reinforces the idea that Janis Joplin is not only alive in the music but alive as flesh and blood for ninety minutes!
In 2011, A Night with Janis Joplin premiered at Portland’s Center Stage moving on to Broadway, and now fortunately, a traveling production that will include 70 performances in 34 cities. This night in St. Louis finds the tour at just over its halfway point and Ms. Davies voice sounding like it’s opening night. As much as this night a celebration of the music of Janis Joplin, it’s also a history lesson best summed up with the line, “That’s all I’m gonna do is tell it like it is”, delivered by Mary Bridget Davies, in raspy, Janis fashion. The production tells the tale of Janis from the beginning, growing up in Port Arthur, Texas in an upper-middle class setting, her mother singing show tunes on Saturday’s as she cleaned house, and all of the musical influences that made Janis, Janis. Intermingled throughout the evening, the influences made their way onstage. All of the inspirations are played superbly by a group of performers known as the Joplinaires. Cicily Daniels as Chantel, Odetta, and Bessie Smith; Tawny Dolley as Etta James and Chantel; Q. Smith as Blues Woman, Nina Simone, and Aretha Franklin;and Jennifer Leigh Warren as Chantel, Blues Singer. Janis’s teenage years find her as a misfit, working in a coffeehouse that sold her art and on occasion, playing music with area folk musicians. Branching out of Austin, Janis finds her way to San Francisco to escape her Texas roots only to wind up back in Texas again living the straight life. But once again, the music calls and Janis is off to Austin and then back to 'Frisco. “I think I’ll stay boys” is what Janis tells the members of Big Brother and the Holding Company. Onstage this is portrayed with the song, “Piece of My Heart” and received with the night’s first of many standing ovations! As Cicily Daniels portrays Odetta, it is not hard to miss the intensity in which Janis looks at her idols, as she sits on the stage steps in a dim spotlight. The first act closes with Q. Smith’s wonderful portrayal of Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, Janis, and the Joplinaires belting out, “Spirit in the Dark”. When Aretha says, “The spirit done jumped all up on me”, she means it!
The band. I forgot to mention the band! They perfectly recreate the sounds of Janis with the fuzz of the sixties and the clarity of modern technology. A personal standing O to the band! The second act is all Janis. The various bottles of booze onstage, which Janis occasionally swigs from, fuel the memories of sharing a bedroom with her sister, and the light in the closet, that to Janis, was the blues. Janis listens with her soul as Nina Simone sings, “Little Girl Blue”, a song that evokes vivid memories her painting her sister Laura. After hearing Mary Bridget cover the Joplin classic, “Cry Baby”, it is evident why a 20-minute intermission was needed; so she could rest up for the performance of this song! Bessie, Nina, Etta, and the Blues Singer bring the Holy Spirit back to the stage in a haunting interpretation of the Dylan classic, “I Shall Be Released”. “Yeah, you can get up”, says Janis, as the opening chords of “Me and Bobby McGee” are strummed and the Peabody audience is dancing and singing in the aisles. When Davies speaks as Janis, she makes you feel that there was a continual loneliness and inner pain that surrounded Joplin. And a line is uttered that solidifies her loneliness, “You can fill your head up with ideas and still go home lonely”. The home stretch of A Night with Janis Joplin finds the band dialed in to full “60's Fuzz Mode” as Davies nails “Ball and Chain” and “Kozmic Blues”. Of course no night with Janis would be complete without the sing-a-long classic, “Mercedes Benz”, a song that many that knew Janis say was completely Janis being who she was. Just before “Mercedes Benz”, Janis remembers a question she was once asked, “Hey Janis, do you think you’ll die a young, unhappy death?” As we all know, the unfortunate answer was yes. But a parting line from Janis solidifies her place in musical history, “I will go on”, and that she does. A huge thanks to Iconic Entertainment Studios, Jumpstart Entertainment, the cast and crew of A Night with Janis Joplin, and the Peabody Opera House for accommodating Music Taster’s Choice.
Contributed by Duane Clawson
A Night with Janis Joplin @ Peabody Opera House, St. Louis, MO Reviewed by Scott Rowe, Editor on 12:30:00 PM Rating: