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.
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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.