If you are a big Janis Joplin fan you will probably enjoy the new Broadway show, A Night with Janis Joplin. Mary Bridget Davies, who plays the iconic 1960’s rocker, can be quite impressive as she sings and wails through the Joplin catalogue in what is essentially a two-hour concert.
For the rest of us seeking more substance, the production is a huge disappointment. There is no significant book, no conflict, and no drama, which is such a shame since Joplin’s life and career, her struggles and pain, are an ideal subject for an intelligent and penetrating Broadway musical a la Jersey Boys.
The show starts with Joplin at center stage, framed by a huge light tower, fronting an excellent eight-person band. She belts out a few songs and then comes to the front of the stage and, speaking into a microphone, enlightens the audience with information about growing up in Texas. She sings some more then moves over to a comfy chair, microphone in hand, and provides more about her life and how the blues were such a huge influence. Some of those singers—Odetta, Etta James, and Bessie Smith—come to life throughout the production so we really know what the blues sound like.
That’s A Night with Janis Joplin in a nutshell. Songs, some with a full-throttled, no holds barred rendition by Ms. Davies, a bit of narration here and there, and performances by artists who had a profound affect on Joplin’s musical career. Interestingly, younger audience members, maybe not that familiar with Joplin’s short life, would never know about her alcohol usage (I counted two swigs from a bottle during the show), substance abuse, or even her untimely death!
Mary Bridget Davies gives a solid portrayal of the revered singer. She can be coy, introspective, joyful, and self-assured.. But, as I stated at the onset, unless you just can’t get enough of Joplin’s voice the musical begins to wear thin very fast.
Book writer and director Randy Johnson embraces a minimalist approach in both capacities. His direction is pure simplicity--Janis move center stage, now sing, now move stage right, sit, get up, sing, band move up to frame her, band move to the back of the stage. Back-up singers stand there, dead singers drift in from the wings here, etc. etc.
The accompanying band, which includes three guitars, a three-piece horn section, drums and piano, is onstage for the whole show. They are outstanding. Any rocker or performer would be sincerely blessed by their presence and musical showmanship.
A Night with Janis Joplin, a jukebox musical that totally misses the mark.