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REVIEW: Explosive Janis Joplin at the Ordway

Hair, music, and lights in A Night with Janis Joplin, original Broadway cast. Photo by Joan Marcus.

If you notice more construction near the Ordway in St Paul in the coming week, it may be because Mary Bridget Davies and the cast of A Night with Janis Joplin: A New Musical actually succeeded in blowing the roof off the place with their powerhouse musical performances. This show originally opened on Broadway in October 2013 and is currently touring 34 cities in the United States and Canada; Twin Cities theatergoers can catch a performance at the Ordway through April 3.

Night with Janis Joplin, A Lyceum Theatre
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The main event, without a doubt, is Mary Bridget Davies as Joplin. Fans of the original are free to debate her interpretation of Joplin’s stage persona, but Davies’s vocal talent and ability to grip an audience are irrefutable. Her renditions of “Piece of My Heart” and “Cry Baby” nearly stopped the show cold – and that was before she even got to “Me and Bobby McGee,” the night’s climax.

Audience members looking for something beyond a stirring musical revue may leave somewhat disappointed, though. As with many Baby Boomer nostalgia projects, the depiction of the 1960s spirit Joplin embodied feels, at times, disingenuously uncomplicated. This shouldn’t be surprising for a feel-good rock and roll tribute show, except that the musical keeps directly bringing these themes to the foreground and then drops them without a satisfying resolution.

A Night with Janis Joplin is structured as part Joplin concert/monologue (carrying the audience through her career) and part tribute to the African American women performers who influenced her. Throughout the concert-within-a-show, four cast members return again and again portraying multiple roles: Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, The Chantels, and other artists who gave Joplin her songs and her sound.

At first, this seems like a recuperative move to address the longstanding (and still continuing) practice in the music industry of exploiting African American musicians through taking content and musical forms they created (and often without credit) and benefitting economically from it after using the material with White artists. In the second act, though, it becomes clear that we are actually supposed to see Joplin as heir to the legacy of these African American women, ignoring her role as one of the many White artists who performed, popularized, and ultimately profited from their work.

The sanitized feel of the show is further Purell-ified by Joplin’s interstitial monologues, somehow reducing the deep want in her soul that gave her the blues to trouble balancing romantic relationships and a successful musical career. The personal demons and addictions that ended her life at 27 are reduced to one or two swigs of whiskey onstage and a few dramatic lighting cues. Such is show business.

If you are looking for a satisfying musical experience, though, the show more than meets its mark. The performers all but reach into the audience and drag the people onto their feet to start dancing and clapping along—sometimes on the downbeat, St. Paul, but clapping heartily nonetheless. Q. Smith shows off incredible vocal versatility performing the unmistakable Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, the deep and evocative tones of Nina Simone, and a glorious soprano rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Cicily Daniels is luminous as Odetta and delightful and Bessie Smith, and Tawny Dolley makes a vibrant and full throated Etta James. As the Blues Singer, Jennifer Leigh Warren is powerful and expressive, and all four women appear as “the Joplinaires” to back Davies as Janis Joplin.

While the spoken portions of Davies’s performance can seem muddled and unfocused at times, her singing raises goosebumps almost the second she opens her mouth. Her vocal performance has depth and vulnerability and strength and soul that starts from the first second and lasts until after the evening’s last note. While the story of Joplin’s life and art may be better told elsewhere than in A Night with Janis Joplin, you would be hard pressed to find someone better to sing it than the outstanding Mary Bridget Davies. Her singing alone is worth the price of admission, and she deserves a long career ahead of her.

Lydia Lunning