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A CurtainUp DC Review
One Night With Janis Joplin
Joplin found herself drawn to other genres such as the soul music coming from African-American churches and bars, even folk. She even listened to the female trios of the late 1950’s, “nice chicks, singing nice songs you could foxtrot to,” the antithesis of Joplin’s hard rock, mike-hugging, loud and deep sounds.
At Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater, Mary Bridget Davies, who even looks like Janis Joplin, gives an excellent impersonation of the head-scratching, hair-tossing rocker. Her voice is strong (and over-miked) and her renditions of the hits Joplin wrote —“Turtle Blues,” “Down on Me,” and “Kozmic Blues” —are both strident and stirring. Her best number in life and in this show remains “Me and Bobby McGee,” written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster. Sadly though some of those great lyrics are blurred as Davies almost swallows her mike.
As good as Mary Bridget Davies is, and she is very good, her performance is overshadowed by blues singer Sabrina Elayne Carten who sings the songs sung by African-American singers who influenced Joplin: Bessie Smith, Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone. Carten’s rendition of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” is goose-bump enducing. Joplin’s take, although dramatic, is harsh and loud by comparison. Carten has a magnificent voice of great range and a majestic stage presence, particularly in Aretha Franklin’s “Spirit In The Dark.” No screeching. No hollering. Just strong, stirring vocals and, boy, can she deliver. Give this artist her own show, please.
The program lists Randy Johnson as the creator, writer and director and sometimes refers to the work as a play. It isn’t. The patter between numbers is not particularly illuminating. Biographical details are sketchy. This is a concert of Janis Joplin’s songs and the music, lyrics and singers who influenced her. Joplin sings about “the rush” when she is performing, the loneliness when she is not A swig of whiskey every now and then and a fleeting reference to the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco best known in the ‘60’s as a haven for drug addicts, only hint at what caused Janis Joplin’s death from a drug overdose at the age of 27.
Set and lighting designer Justin Townsend shines strobes at the audience and the ambiance of his set is psychedelic lite. Are the sheer bits of fabric that frame the stage supposed to represent clouds of smoke rising from pot, ubiquitous during Janis Joplin’s lifetime? And projection designer Darrel Maloney’s fondness for primary-colored blobs does not do justice to the visual “trips” fostered in the ‘60’s. The eight-piece on-stage band performs well, particularly Stephen Flakus in a rousing solo riff. The trio of “girls,” as they were then called, Laura Carbonell, Alison Cusano, and Shinnerrie Jackson, provide excellent backup singing although their choreography was not nearly as sharp as that of the singers they were emulating namely, the Shirelles.
Theperformers several times encouraged the audience to get on their feet, clap their hands, and join in the joy of rock. Although such self-congratulary movement is annoying to some, it worked well given Arena’s staid audience. By the end of the evening, the stuffed shirt across the aisle from me was on his feet and clapping, albeit out of sync. He even sang along with the encore, Joplin’s deliciously funny “Mercedes Benz.” That’s the power of entertainment.