'One Night With Janis Joplin': A piece of Janis' heart and soul lives in Mary Bridget Davies

06 Aug 'One Night With Janis Joplin': A piece of Janis' heart and soul lives in Mary Bridget Davies

By Andrea Simakis, The Plain Dealer
Friday August 3rd, 2012

The story never gets old, no matter how many times you hear it — waiting in the wings, the understudy is, by a twist of fate or maybe a turned ankle, thrust into the spotlight where she will crash or soar.

On opening night of “One Night With Janis Joplin” at the Cleveland Play House’s Allen Theatre, Mary Bridget Davies rose and rose and rose.

Taking over the lead in a show so vocally demanding that a man in the audience quipped that his throat was sore in sympathy, Davies not only filled in, she transcended, delivering a performance so raw, real and in-the-moment that it brought people to their feet again and again.

Cat Stephani, who originated the role of the Texas-born beatnik when the show premiered at Oregon’s Portland Center Stage in 2011, bowed out during previews in Cleveland.

Davies, who lives in Lakewood, has worn Joplin’s velvet bell-bottoms before. Not only did Davies play the legendary Pearl in the national tour of “Love, Janis” in 2005 (a show that got its start at the Play House in 1999), the blues siren performs internationally with Joplin’s original band, Big Brother and the Holding Company.

In “One Night,” Davies taps into the blues-rocker’s odd mix of dreamy naivete and world-weariness, whether mooning over art by Modigliani at the Port Arthur, Texas, library or mourning the ignoble burial of Bessie Smith in an unmarked grave. She also perfectly captures Joplin’s yearning for authenticity, a desperation to be true to herself, to stay Janis, despite her rising fame.

And then there is The Voice. Because no matter how brilliant the band backing her (and it is) or how well the set evokes that lo-fi, late-’60s, dirt-under-the-fingernails grunginess (and it does), The Voice is what the boomer-heavy crowd filling the theater Wednesday, many dressed in tie-dyed tees and strands of love beads, had come to hear.

“I think I sound like a white chick singing the blues,” she says, one of the charmingly self-deprecating bons mots littering the book by writer-director Randy Johnson.

But when Davies’ Janis takes a swig from a bottle and rips into “Summertime,” a song we learn Joplin fell in love with as a girl (“I listened to ‘Porgy & Bess’ so much I wore that record out”), she’s like no white chick you’ve ever heard.

Joplin was famous for her ruined rasp, a growl that started like a whisper then built to a wail, her sound the embodiment of a generation unleashed. Davies can match the superstar’s power and passion but also brings a purity of tone that Janis would have envied. (I dare you to sit still when she delivers “Cry, Baby” or a host of other signature Joplin tunes.)

Complementing that Voice is Sabrina Elayne Carten as the Blues Singer, an amalgam of Janis’ influences — from Smith to gospel-folk master Odetta to the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin. Carten, reprising the part she played in Portland, is a vocal chameleon, navigating the demands of opera, blues, soul and gospel with stunning facility.

The women are Broadway-ready, and anyone would be lucky to catch them when the show hits the road on a planned North American tour. (After its run at the Allen, the musical will open at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.)

As is, “One Night With Janis Joplin” is a feel-good, fist-pumping, must-see concert with bits of diverting, sometimes-moving patter between songs. But with assets such as Carten and Davies, it could be so much more.

What’s missing is a story — Janis’ story — pulled through the piece from the first number to the last to give the show the emotional punch it teasingly, fleetingly offers, like echoes of a long-forgotten favorite song.

In Act 1, we are given tidbits of Janis’ biography, up until she finds herself in San Francisco singing electric, psychedelic rock with Big Brother. By the time Act 2 rolls around, the rest of her short, incandescent life has been drowned out by belted hits.

“You know, I really dug Nina Simone,” Janis says, though you wish she’d confide more: how she used the spoils of her too-much-too-soon fame to erect a headstone for Smith, how she found herself alone in a Hollywood hotel room with two lethal companions, whiskey and heroin.

Janis tells us that the last tune in the final set, “I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven,” was written for her by her friend and celebrated hit-maker Jerry Ragovoy. But no one mentions that she died before she could record it, a script oversight that robs the finale of off-the-charts pathos.

The late, great music critic Ellen Willis wrote that “Joplin belonged to that select group of pop figures who mattered as much for themselves as for their music.”
That’s the reason, more than four decades after her death at age 27, that we still wanna spend the night with her.