A Night with Janis Joplin, the concert-musical focusing on the titular rock legend, opened at the Lyceum Theater, on Oct. 10. The production arrives in New York after two years of engagements at such regional theaters as the Portland Center Stage, Cleveland Play House, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Pasadena Playhouse, and Milwaukee Repertory Theater.
Joplin is played by Mary Bridget Davies who played the role in these regional productions and won Cleveland Critics Circle Award and the Helen Hayes Award (for Washington, D.C. area theater) as best actress in a musical. Songs include such classics as “Piece of My Heart,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” and “Ball and Chain.” The show, written and directed by Randy Johnson, takes on the form on an imagined Joplin concert. The rock icon rose to prominence in the late 1960s as the lead singer of the group Big Brother and the Holding Company and later as a solo artist. She made a huge hit with her raw, intense performances at the Monterey Pop Festival and at the legendary Woodstock Festival. But her fame was short-lived. She died of a drug overdose in 1970 at the age of 27.
Also in the cast are Taprena Michelle Augustine, De’Adre Aziza, Allison Blackwell, and Nikki Kimbrough as such iconic singers as Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Odetta, and Nina Simone, all of whom Joplin counted as influences. Did the critics rock out to Joplin’s vibe? Here are excerpts from the major reviewers.
Charles Isherwood, The New York Times
“Ms. Davies rockets through at least a dozen of Joplin’s best-known songs, and sings them with a throbbing fervor that is often riveting. Her ability to match Joplin’s highly emotive style could probably give members of the audience who saw the real woman something close to a contact high—or maybe a nostalgia high is the better term.”
Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post
“Recent biomusicals End of the Rainbow (about Judy Garland) and Lady Day (Billie Holiday) reveled in their subjects’ ups and downs, but this estate-approved show mostly sticks to the music. The result is a power-piped but sanitized Joplin (Davies) who’d be perfectly at home on a cruise ship.”
Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News
“Joplin drops tidbits about family and life, but she’s more interested in showcasing the black singers who influenced her and her song choices: Bessie Smith (Taprena Michelle Augustine), Etta James (Nikki Kimbrough), Aretha Franklin (a terrific Allison Blackwell), Nina Simone and Odetta (De’Adre Aziza). Each supporting performer throws off bright sparks in a solo.”
Jennifer Farrar, Associated Press
“Soulful and genuine, Davies gives a lively, energetic performance. She captures much of the exuberance and uniquely raspy wailing that made Joplin a musical legend, though she lacks Joplin’s raw onstage sexuality and brash, raunchy persona. No stranger to the role, Davies has sung as Janis for years, including in this show regionally for the past year.”
David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter
“Mary Bridget Davies screeches up a storm as Janis Joplin. When she throws her formidable lungpower and raspy emotional rawness into “Piece of My Heart,” you could swear the tragic supernova known to her friends as “Pearl” had been reborn. But if you’re after a contextualized bio-musical to provide insight into rock’s first undisputed queen, writer-director Randy Johnson’s sanitized concert tribute, A Night With Janis Joplin, is not the place to look. Coming to New York after successfully touring a number of regional stops, the show continues the transformation of Broadway into one giant industrial Baby Boomer karaoke machine.”
Elysa Gardner, USA Today
“A penchant for excess in life and art are central to the legend of this star that burned out at just 27; and Davies—whose robust, gravelly singing uncannily evokes Joplin’s—both captures that bombast and mitigates it with an endearingly awkward sweetness. If her renditions of classics such as ‘Piece of My Heart’ and ‘Ball and Chain’ are predictably, and authentically, over the top, the actress also brings palpable vulnerability and humility to Joplin’s (often hokey) accounts of her youth, passion and loneliness.”
Marilyn Stasio, Variety
“As a musical biography, A Night With Janis Joplin is pretty much a bust. The book by Randy Johnson, who also helmed, skims lightly over the singer’s Texas childhood and her tenure with Big Brother and the Holding Company, with nary a word about her personal life or the booze and drugs that cut it short. But as a concert in which those great ladies of song who were Joplin’s musical inspiration join her on stage, the show is something else—a celebration of the blues and those beautiful bruises they leave on the singer’s soul.”
Matt Windman, AM New York
“No one can accuse A Night With Janis Joplin of not delivering what it is promised in the title. Not unlike the recent Beatles tribute show Let It Be, this marks yet another faux concert in which a performer pretends to be a legendary rock star. Those who attend will travel back to 1967 and spend the night with Joplin plus her band and backup singers. It’s straightforward, without any parody or even a storyline. But whereas Let It Be featured no acting of any sort, the very talented and dedicated Mary Bridget Davies really digs into the role of Joplin, authentically replicating the Queen of Rock’s distinctively raw and raspy voice in every song while bringing an unrelenting intensity.”
Scott Brown, Vulture
“Don’t expect much in the way of personal revelation or public misbehavior. Apart from sucking on a bottle of Southern Comfort, this Janis is quite composed and sedate between songs. She tells charming stories about housecleaning, her family, her favorite 45s. Johnson’s script has been carefully policed by the Joplin estate, which consists of Janis’s siblings—thus, it’s long on stories about her siblings and short on just about everything else. If an alien landed in the theater, seeking knowledge of Janis Joplin, its report to the mother ship would describe a mild, genial hippie redneck whose onstage routine included the occasional nip of hooch—basically Ron White in combat boots and batik, with a song in his heart.”
Linda Winer, Newsday
“This show does not merely acknowledge Joplin’s debt to black soul singers. Nor does it dwell on her death, in classic blues tradition, of heroin and Southern Comfort at 27 in 1970. Instead, A Night With . . . gives those women a third of her night. Excellent imitators of Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Etta James and Odetta get to sing their own songs, lots of them, while Janis gazes admiringly at them from a chair on a set that inexplicably looks like a lamp store with a band in it.”