Legit Review: ‘One Night with Janis Joplin’

It is Dead Lady Singers Week in the Southland. Tracie Bennett opens Wednesday night as Judy Garland in “End of the Rainbow” at the Ahmanson. And Mary Bridget Davies essays the late, great rocker in “One Night With Janis Joplin” at the Pasadena Playhouse. Movies, recordings and videos of the originals are no longer enough, and local legit efforts have cast an eye to cashing in some of that Elvis-in-Vegas lucre. Davies comes close to capturing much of the sound of the original Janis Joplin. As for the excitement, stick to “Cheap Thrills” or “Pearl.”

One Night With Janis Joplin” offers no fewer than 23 songs. Wow! How can any one perform 23 songs in two hours, especially with Joplin’s raw, strip-your-vocal-chords kind of singing? Before we send for throat paramedics, it needs to be noted that writer-director Randy Johnson has given almost half of those songs to Joplin’s many alter-egos as embodied in the Blues Singer (Sabrina Elayne Carten), who portrays a slew of African-American legends ranging from Bessie Smith and Nina Simone to Aretha Franklin and Leontyne Price. Johnson doesn’t stint on paying debts where debts are due, and neither did Joplin.

The show might be subtitled “And a Whole Lotta Black Women.” Carten and Davies are immensely talented singers, and as evidenced here, Carten is an amazingly versatile one, too. But excitement in performance comes when a great singer is also an original. Maybe these two women are, but “One Night with Janis Joplin” never gives them the opportunity to show just that. They’re impersonators, and Davies has the uneviable task of trying to match the growl and every croak of a catch in Joplin’s voice as captured on vinyl. She sometimes succeeds, often comes close but never exceeds what Joplin did. What’s missing? Spontaneity — a Joplin trademark.

Popular on Variety

Carten has the easier task. In addition to wearing at least a dozen different wigs, she dazzles with one quick impersonation after another and so avoids the close scrutiny that comes with having to deliver a whole repertory of songs by one performer. Actually, she’s at her best (and most original) when she just lets go to veer off from the original with Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark.”

Davies is a chunkier, older-looking Joplin, and most resembles her when she dons rose-tinted wire-rims that help hide her rather steely Patty Duke eyes. Johnson glues the songs together with lots of original Joplin quotes, but the character he and Davies create comes off sycophantish and rather dull in her idolization of great blues singers. Maybe Joplin wasn’t a great quote-meister. Great artists often aren’t, although anyone who saw Joplin’s interview on “The Dick Cavett Show” shortly before her death in 1970 will never forget her wicked get-it-while-you-can charm.

What with Carten carrying half the show, “One Night” is hardly a re-creation of a Joplin concert. It’s a fantasy, which is unfortunately emphasized by the little stars of light covered in cloudy gauze covering the theater’s proscenium.

One Night With Janis Joplin” was previously staged at Cleveland Play House, D.C.’s Arena Stage and Oregon’s Portland Center Stage, where the show had its world premiere in 2011.

(Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena; 686 seats; $107 top)
A Pasadena Playhouse in association with Daniel Chilewich and Todd Gershwin of One Night Productions presentation of a musical in two acts conceived, written and directed by Randy Johnson. Sets and lighting, Justin Townsend; costumes, Jeff Cone; sound, Carl Casella; projections, Darrel Maloney; music supervision, Ross Seligman; musical arranger and original music director, Len Rhodes. Opened and reviewed March 17, 2013. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

With: Sabrina Elayne Carten, Mary Bridget Davies, Tricia Kelly, Shay Saint-Victor, Kimberly Yarbrough.

Legit Review: 'One Night with Janis Joplin'

More Legit

  • Zoe Caldwell Dead

    Zoe Caldwell, Four-Time Tony Winner, Dies at 86

    Zoe Caldwell, an Australian actress with a talent for illuminating the human side of imposing icons such as Cleopatra and Maria Callas in a career that netted her four Tony Awards, died on Sunday due to complications from Parkinson’s disease, according to her son Charlie Whitehead. She was 86. Caldwell occasionally appeared in television and [...]

  • Cambodian Rock Band interview

    Listen: How 'Cambodian Rock Band' Became One of the Most Produced Plays in the U.S.

    One of the hottest trends in American theater this season is Cambodian surf rock from the 1970s — and that’s thanks to “Cambodian Rock Band.” Listen to this week’s Stagecraft podcast below: Playwright Lauren Yee’s genre-bending stage show, part family drama and part rock concert, has become one of the most-produced plays in the U.S. this season. [...]

  • Revenge Song

    Vampire Cowboys' 'Revenge Song': L.A. Theater Review

    There’s highbrow, there’s lowbrow, and then there’s however you might classify Vampire Cowboys, the anarchic New York City theater company whose diverse productions . It’s radical, “good taste”-flouting counter-programming for the vast swaths of the population left unserved by high-dollar, stiff-collar theater options. Vampire Cowboys’ raucous new show, “Revenge Song,” is unlike anything else that’s [...]

  • THE VISIT review

    'The Visit': Theater Review

    Director Jeremy Herrin’s extraordinary take on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play “The Visit” is less of a production and more of a show. A wordy one, to be sure, which is no surprise since it’s an adaptation by Tony Kushner that, including two intermissions, comes in at three-and-a-half hours. It’s never going to be described as [...]

  • Freestyle Love Supreme review

    'We Are Freestyle Love Supreme': Film Review

    For any Lin-Manuel Miranda fans whose hearts sank almost as quickly as they rose upon hearing that, yes, there’s a “Hamilton” movie, and no, it won’t be out for another 20 months, succor may be on the way in the form of a probably faster-arriving movie that features Miranda in almost as big a role, [...]

  • Unmasked review

    Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Unmasked': Theater Review

    It takes guts to admit you were wrong — especially when you have been so right, so often. Take composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose successes with  “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Evita,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “School of Rock” have made him a musical-theater uber-Lord. Early on during [...]

  • Aaron Loeb

    James Ward Byrkit to Direct Aaron Loeb's Off-Broadway Adaptation 'Ideation' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Aaron Loeb’s darkly comic one-act play “Ideation” will be turned into a movie, Variety has learned. The Off-Broadway production centers on a group of corporate consultants who work together on a mysterious and ethically ambiguous project for the government. It premiered in 2016, and went on to become a New York Times Critic’s Pick during [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content