We are at The Fillmore, and the night is full of sex and danger (set and fabulous lighting by Justin Townsend). The great Aretha Franklin (the magnificent Sabrina Elayne Carten) has just taken us ninety percent of the way through a free-sweating, foot-stomping version of “Spirit in the Dark” when she has an announcement to make. “I have a surprise for you,” she says. “Backstage there’s a woman by the name of Janis Joplin. And if you call loud enough for her, she might just come out.”
And for a moment it seems like it might be true – that a room full of beautifully-dressed and impeccably-coiffed sixty-year-olds, sitting in the comfort of Arena’s Kreeger Theatre and chanting Jan-is! Jan-is! might somehow conjure the legendary fuser of blues and rock out of her forty-two-year’s-grave in order to play with us once more. And look! There she is on the catwalk – rose granny glasses and feathered boa, hair impossibly long just as it was at Monterey.
And then Janis (Mary Bridget Davies) opens her mouth, and out comes the unmistakable, the unforgettable wail of joy and pain – Janis! – so unutterably like anything else that it seems like the reinvention of singing itself. She is here again.
Or… almost. The necromancy of One Night with Janis Joplin brings us her art and soul, but not herself. It may not be necessary, or even important: the journey an artist takes us on is one independent of her personal life, which can become a distraction, or even gossip.
But since One Night presents itself as a bio-concert, this must be said: the silky-voiced speaking Janis that creator/director Randy Johnson and Davies present to us – cheerful, mischievous (the blues, she explains with a leer, is just a bad woman feeling good), slightly pious – is an unrecognizable counterpart to the power and agony of her music.
But let’s get back to the music (as you may find yourself saying if you go to this show, which you should). The blues are an art form which bubbled out of the African-American experience, which is to say out of the experience of an oppressed people; when you hear them sung by artists like Bessie Smith or Nina Simone (both of whom appear wearing the body of Carten in One Night) you hear cold depression and bone-weariness. But Janis was – as she repeatedly says on-stage – a “white chick” with a relentlessly middle-class background. When she sang the blues it was like she was being electrocuted. Her head flew back; her limbs jerked spasmodically and what came out of her mouth was a howl, a screech, a babble of words that somehow made sense and turned into a river of music.
Davies – who, physically, resembles the original only slightly – gets all this, and what she presents on stage is less an imitation of Janis than a reinhabitation of her musical persona. Davies powers through a nineteen-song set (Carten does an additional three pieces) with the energy of – no, wait, energy is the wrong word. Bryce Harper taking an extra base on an inattentive outfielder – that’s energy. What Janis, and Davies bring to the table is something different: a force of nature which seems barely under their control. Davies, like Janis Joplin forty-five years ago, rides her voice like a bronco-buster hanging onto a frenzied stallion.
All the great songs are here – Summertime, Down on Me, Piece of My Heart, Try (Just a Little Bit Harder), Cry Baby, Me and Bobby McGee and, of course, Mercedes Benz, the instrument-free love song she recorded for her fans three days before an overdose of heroin sent her to God at the age of 27.
Davies, who now tours with Janis’ old band Big Brother and the Holding Company (and how freaky must that be, to have played with Janis Joplin forty-five years ago and to now play with her clone, who was born eight years after Janis died?), delivers every ounce of Janis’ pain, grit, persistence and power in her flawless reproduction of her art. A sufficiently calibrated measuring device might be able to tell the difference between Janis Joplin singing and Mary Bridget Davies singing Janis Joplin, but I cannot.
And although Davies’ transformation into Janis Joplin is the most remarkable thing about One Night, it is not the only remarkable thing. There is the fine, fine band (Stephen Flakus and Ross Seligman on guitar, Patrick Harry on bass, Gavriel de Tarr and Anton Van Oosbree on trumpet, David Milne on sax, Mitch Wilson on drums and Tyler Evans on keyboard); there are three backup singers (Laura Barbonell, Alison Cusano, and Shinnerrie Jackson) with voices lucid as glass; there are Benjamin Keightley’s brilliant projections (designed by Darrel Maloney), which reach their apotheoses in the gradual revelation of the portrait Janis painted of her little sister; and most of all there is the operatic Carten, one of the few women in the world who can do Aretha Franklin, and make it sound genuine.
In the midst of all this brilliance and authenticity, Johnson does us a disservice by providing us a bowdlerized version of the singer’s life. He has Janis – awkwardly, between songs – tell us about her upbringing in Port Arthur, Texas; how her mother loved Broadway musicals and would teach Janice and her siblings to sing while they performed household chores; how her father was a “closet intellectual” and how she loved her job at a coffee shop, where they let her sell her art. (She was a better-than-average visual artist and she first thought to make visual art her career). Johnson’s Janis loved to play at little honky-tonk bars but when success takes her to the stratosphere she is modest and assuming, and vows not to compromise her values. And so on.
One Night with Janis Joplin
Closes November 4, 2012
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
2 hours, 25 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $45 – $94
Tuesdays thru Sundays
This may all very well be true – Johnson wrote this, after all, in close consultation with Janis’ two siblings – but it is not the whole truth. Janis Joplin was, first of all, a relentless and enthusiastic consumer of Southern Comfort – she was one of the few singers for whom the phrase “whiskey-soaked voice” was not a metaphor – and of a vast array of recreational drugs, including the one that killed her. She was not a happy woman, and she did not have a happy childhood. In school, she said she “was a misfit. I read. I painted. I didn’t hate” African-Americans. (Laurie Jacobson, “Hollywood Heartbreak: The Tragic and Mysterious Deaths of Hollywood’s Most Remarkable Legends,” Simon & Schuster, 1984).
She was bisexual – her affair with Peggy Caserta is well documented – in an era when people who loved other people of their own sex were feared and hated, even by artists and liberals. It well may be that she thought that no man could satisfy her the way that an audience could, as Johnson has her say in this show, but it was a proposition which Janis was happy to test repeatedly. She counted Kris Kristofferson and Country Joe McDonald among her lovers, and at the time of her death she was engaged to David Niehaus, a Peace Corp volunteer and Notre Dame graduate.
None of this is in One Night (although at one point Janis does have a modest pull at a bottle of whiskey). Johnson, of course, is under no obligation to salt his reanimation of the singer’s art with her life story. But, having elected to do so, he should give us a true story, or at least a truer story than he puts on stage. Among other failings, his sanitized presentation of the life of Janis Joplin gives us no clue to the great pain that flowed like the Niagara from her unique interpretations of the songs she chose to do.
Janis Joplin died October 4, 1970, exactly forty-two years before last night’s show. She would have been seventy years old this coming January.
One Night with Janis Joplin, Created, written and directed by Randy Johnson. Features Mary Bridget Davies, Sabrina Elayne Carten, Laura Carbonell, Alison Cusano and Shinnerie Jackson. Music by Stephen Flakus, Ross Seligman, Patrick Harry, Tyler Evans, Mitch Wilson, Gabriel de Tarr, David Milnes, and Anton Van Oosbree. Music arrangement and Musical direction by Len Rhodes, set and lighting design by Justin Townsend, costume design by Jeff Cone, sound design by Carl Casella, projection design by Darrel Maloney. Stage management: Jennifer Matheson Collins, assisted by Keri Schultz. Produced by Arena Stage in association with the Cleveland Play House and Daniel Chilewich and Todd Gershwin of One Night Productions. Reviewed by Tim Treanor.