Sunday, October 20, 2013

Review of "A Night with Janis Joplin" - Broadway

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.

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