By: Sandi Durell
It’s uncanny how Mary Bridget Davies, who plays the 60s star, encompasses not only her look – frizzy mane of hair waving wildly about, husky voice moaning, wailing, screaming – reaching deep, deep into the soul of the performer in a concertized enactment at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway.
The lights blind and dazzle (bring sunglasses), the sound level roars and deafens (bring ear plugs) as Janis Joplin, inspired by the great blues singers, comes alive. For her fans, strewn throughout the audience, it’s as if they are now one with their icon as they groove and join in the concert.
Joplin lived a hard life moving around the country, seeking freedom; a way to tell it like it is. Hailing from Port Arthur, Texas, we get a little insight into her life growing up listening to “Porgy and Bess” and other Broadway shows her Mom would spin on the record player. She worked a lot of jobs, from ticket taker to coffee houses, paying for art supplies (she was a pretty good artist) painting and selling her pieces at the coffee house. She developed a blues style listening endlessly to her mentors, The Chantels, Odetta, Nina Simone, Aretha, Etta James and Bessie Smith – after all she says it’s women only who can really feel the blues.
Well, no doubt, her blues was lonelier and deeper than most, and even though she refers to the blues as subtle, Joplin’s was harsh and howling, screaming to unleash.
What works is hearing Davies unbridled versions of “Me and Bobby McGee,” Kozmic Blues” and “Mercedes Benz” along with “Cry Baby” and “Ball and Chain,” backed by her eight piece band looking like the beatnik guys out of the era.
Throughout the 2 hours 15 minutes (with intermission) there’s an attempt for a storyline that needs a lot of work. The stage is set with a plethora of lamps, in different shapes and sizes – probably to give light to a memory of her childhood bedroom she shared with her sister which she says was very dark.
Adding to the musical flavoring are appearances by her iconic mentors in flashbacks: Bessie Smith (Taprena Michelle Augustine), Nina Simone and Odetta (De’ Adre Aziza), Aretha Franklin (Alllison Blackwell) and Etta James (Nikki Kimbrough) who have a chance to sing some of those blues greats “Summertime,” Down on Me,” Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “Little Girl Blue” and “Spirit in the Dark.”
Truly Joplin was a tortured soul, seeking love, trying to assuage her loneliness but the pain must have been much to difficult to bear, and at the age of 27 she died of an overdose of alcohol and drugs.
Mary Bridget Davies brings all this to her character and it’s truly amazing that she hasn’t blown out her lungs and vocal chords as the wild, untamed Janis Joplin. The show is written and directed by Randy Johnson with scenic and lighting design by Justin Townsend.
“A Night With Janis Joplin” – Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200, telecharge.com. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.
*Photos: Joan Marcus