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.
If Mary Bridget Davies says it once, she says it and sings it a hundred times in her ecstatic star turn: Janis Joplin loves the blues. And if you should somehow miss the message, it’s repeated with a visual flair in the luxurious deep blue velvet curtain (with a fringe!) and Justin Townsend’s blue-on-blue lighting scheme, dramatically realized in radiating neon bars and spotlight cones.
And why does Joplin love the blues, exactly? What act of cruelty cut her to the bone, and who was it who hurt her so bad? Better not ask, because there’s not a hint of personal data in the show’s book to enlighten us on that rather critical point. Better just take it on faith from Davies, who looks like Joplin, sings like Joplin, howls like Joplin and has been touring the country in a show and a role-of-a-lifetime that she owns.
It’s not only an amazing perf, it’s also a generous one. It had better be, because the four women sharing the stage with Davies are delivering death-defying performances.
Taprena Michelle Augustine, De’Adre Aziza, Allison Blackwell, and Nikki Kimbrough sing in flawless tight harmony as members of the girl group Chantels and as Joplin’s own backup singers, the Joplinaires. But some of the most electrifying moments are call-and-response numbers in which they interact with Davies on the signature songs that inspired Joplin.
Nikki Kimbrough’s sexy, sassy Etta James gets Davies going on “Tell Mama.” Allison Blackwell (who also brings the house down as Aretha Franklin) offers up a spine-chilling “Summertime” that causes Davies to explode with Joplin’s own version. De’Adre Aziza’s soulful rendering of Odetta’s “Down on Me” inspires an in-kind response from Joplin.
Sometimes the inspiration is more subtle, as with the mournful “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” delivered by Taprena Michelle Augustine’s suffering Bessie Smith. Amy Clark’s gorgeous confection of a 1920s fancy-dress costume gives Bessie more dignity than her personal managers. All the period outfits, for that matter, are meticulously matched to the individual singers, including the plain, but progressively fancy and fancier versions of Joplin’s funky bell bottoms and schmatta tops.
Helmer-scribe Johnson is smart enough not to run these musical pairings into the ground. Except for dozens of mismatched table lamps scattered about (a mysterious design message, that one), the stage is always nice and clear when it’s time for Davies to hurl herself, body and soul, into one of Joplin’s signature shout-the-house-down songs like “Piece of My Heart,” “Cry Baby,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” and “Mercedes Benz,” which brings the audience to its feet at the end of the show.
As a concert, the well-wrought production should satisfy any rabid fan of Joplin’s musical brand of the blues. But for anyone expecting an honest portrait of Janis — or of the hedonistic Sixties era she personified — you can just cry, cry baby.