Janis Joplin died 43 years ago on Oct. 4, but she's alive again on stage at New York's Lyceum Theatre, where a show dedicated to her, A Night with Janis Joplin, opened Oct. 10.
Fans of Joplin will relish in the performance by Mary Bridget Davies, who nails the iconic singer's hippie persona, from every staccato tick in her speaking voice to the astonishing wails and belts in her singing voice. Davies embodies the Texas-born blues artist, from her embroidered bell bottoms to her self-effacing personality. She occasionally swigs from a Southern Comfort bottle, but this Janis would rather just sing than spiral downward.
We don't learn much about Janis' fabled career as the hard-partying diva of the San Francisco rock scene of the '60s in Randy Johnson's PG-rated play. No cameos by Jerry Garcia or Carlos Santana in this Broadway production. But we do meet Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, Odetta, Nina Simone, Etta James and the Chantals, all of whom influenced Joplin.
The show is more about her inspirations than her desperation. Davies emotes about having the blues throughout. And then she heard… Smith… or Franklin… and so on. Each time, one of four black female singers, dubbed the Joplinaires, slinks on stage. For instance, Odetta (De' Adre Aziza) sings "Down on Me," which Joplin wrote, then Davies follows with her version. Rather than comparing and contrasting versions of the same song, it works better when Allison Blackwell as Franklin and Davies close the first act with a rousing rendition of Frankiln's "Spirit in the Dark."
The second act follows the same format, though as the show builds to the climax there's more Janis and less of her muses. Is Joplin heading into the rabbit hole where she may never come back? We never know. There's no significant story to accompany the songs. Just a constant drumbeat of familiar songs, such as "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)", "Ball in Chain," "Me and Bobby McGee," "Cry Baby" and "Piece of My Heart."
The finale, "I'm Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven," hints at Joplin's demise when she was just 27. Unfortunately, despite good intentions, great tunes and a terrific band, we find out little about Janis Joplin during this feel-good night with her on Broadway.