If you ever want to replicate the singing voice of Janis Joplin, at home in your spare time, it’s easy. Just have a friend tie your ankles to the bumper of a car and have him pull you slowly through a long, shallow pit filled with broken bottles, fish hooks and angry wasps. Just remember, while you’re screaming, to stay on tune and on beat.
Then again, you might just prefer to listen to someone else do it, and do it splendidly, in One Night with Janis Joplin, now at the Cleveland Play House. This is CPH’s second bite of the Joplin apple, having produced Love, Janis back in 1998. The new production is the world premiere of an entirely different touring show created, written and directed by Randy Johnson.
While the previous show may have had more heart, as it was built around the real letters Janis wrote to her family and friends, the current effort has plenty to recommend it.
First, of course, is the person playing Janis: Mary Bridget Davies. Initially slated as the understudy in the production, Davies stepped in a day before opening and is ripping the hide off the ball, as they say.
This isn’t a surprise, since Davies performed as Janis in the earlier show (along with a couple other performers) and tours with Joplin’s signature band, Big Brother & the Holding Company. Davies channels many of Joplin’s stage mannerisms and brings a quarry-load of gravel to her vocal riffs.
Many of JJ's key songs are here, including “Piece of My Heart,” “Cry Baby,” “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” “Ball and Chain,” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” (Sadly, there’s no “Get It While You Can,” the climactic song in Love, Janis.) And Davies throws herself onto the pyre of each of these sizzling tunes, screeching out the soulful loneliness and driving passion that made Joplin an icon of the 1960s.
Much of the show is structured around Joplin’s musical influences such as Bessie Smith, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. These blues singers are played and sung by the sublime Sabrina Elayne Carten, who swings assuredly from an operatic turn on “Summertime” to full-tilt rock mode in Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark.” The two lead singers and two backups are supported by an eight-person rock band, with horns, that captures the sound and spirit of these memorable songs.
The production is also visually captivating as it's performed within a welter of pinpoint lights, homey little lamps, crazily pivoting searchlights, furled lavender chiffon and gleaming structural steel. That set and lighting, which serves as a pretty accurate metaphor for Janis herself, is designed by Justin Townsend. There is also a video screen in the background where photos of Janis' paintings are projected (to mixed effect), along with groovy patterns and images from the era.
While the show’s music is loud, brash and intoxicating—it is virtually impossible not to stand up and join in as Davies and company rock out—the script only pays lip service to the superstar’s inner demons and desires. As a result, the eventual reference to her death, at the young age of 27 from a drug overdose, seems more of a cold biographical detail here than a tragedy.
But if you love Janis, or if you want to introduce someone to her particular brand of psychedelic magic, you could do much worse than this production.
One Night with Janis Joplin
Through August 19, produced by the Cleveland Play House, Arena Stage and One Night Productions, at the new Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000