‘One Night with Janis Joplin’ at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater by Max Johnson

I came into One Night with Janis Joplin asking one major question: how will a production presented as “more of a full on concert than a play” by Artistic Director Molly Smith translate into an inherently theatrical setting? This production, now in its second run at Arena Stage, is as Smith describes.The onstage band rocks hard and the vocalists rock harder, the tech is inventively designed, and the whole sound crashes together like your standing next to a speaker cranked up to eleven. The story flows without impeding the concert vibe and provides subtle insight to Janis’ roots.

Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin in 'One Night with Janis Joplin.' Photo by Jim Cox.
Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin in ‘One Night with Janis Joplin.’ Photo by Jim Cox.

My biggest concern with the production is that while it wanted to be a concert, it was still a play. Calling One Night with Janis Joplin a “full on concert” is slightly misleading because without a genuine commitment to either style, some aspects came off at times as disingenuous or forced. The music seemed to demand complete submission to soaring vocals and swelling instrumentals, so the opening night attendees sitting politely and admiring the talent instead of dancing wildly and belting along were almost at ends with the performers. Obviously, a performance set in an intimate theater cannot achieve the same wild experience as an outdoor festival or a giant auditorium, but it can, as it does here, allow for a deeper look into the introspective side of this icon. By the end of the first act (or set, as the program calls it), the audience was prodded onto their feet by the performers which shook off some of the awkward rigidity of the audience for the rest of the show.

That being said, One Night with Janis Joplin is rather a dissection of Janis’ artistry wrapped up in displays of unbelievable talent, and transcends any sort of jukebox or tribute musical. The representations seem genuine rather than derivative, and there is a legitimate literary value to the book.

I attended this show with my Mother, who not only fit right in with the crowd but grew up with Janis and her influence. The true Janis fans were endlessly entertained as each song had a nostalgic value that did not apply to me. Even though I did not experience the “full on concert,” I was expecting, I was blown away by the explosive vocal intricate character work presented by this piece of theater.

Mary Bridget Davies was not playing Janis Joplin. Davies simply was the rock goddess in every fiber of her being. Her vocals were impeccably raw. Each nasal scream burned with gravelly energy as she siphoned her soul into every rock anthem and bluesy jam without ever faltering, exploding in numbers like “Ball and Chain” and “Cry Baby.” It’s unfathomable how Davies has not blown out her voice by now; you can practically hear her vocal chords grinding as she busted out riff after riff. She occupied the brilliant, ambitious, and narcissistic aura of Janis unflinchingly and without reservation, and her poisonous love affair with audiences was depicted with delicacy and grace. Davies was an undeniable powerhouse.

Sabrina Elayne Carten as the Blues Singer in 'One Night with Janis Joplin.' Photo by Jim Cox.
Sabrina Elayne Carten as the Blues Singer in ‘One Night with Janis Joplin.’ Photo by Jim Cox.

But no matter how brilliant Davies’ performance was, there was an indisputable second female lead in Sabrina Elayne Carten’s portrayal of the Blues Singer. Carten’s played Janis’ various muses, rooted in blues, musical theater, and many other genres. This allowed Carten to portray figureheads of music, ranging from Big Mama Thorton to Aretha Franklin. The range of her acting talent was outclassed only by her vocals. She had the ability to produce music from a unrestrained blues throwdown to a perfectly controlled operatic rendition of “Summertime.” And while she could easily stand on her own and command the stage with her awe inspiring talent, when combined with Davies, the pair could bring the house down over and over again as they did in the Set One showstopper “Spirit in the Dark.” There was also a treat in the three talented backup singers made up of Alison Cusano, Shay Saint-Victor, and Kim Yarbrough, who I was delighted to see after her brief stint on NBC’s The Voice.

Justin Townsend provided masterful artistry in his light and set design. A billowing proscenium of fine metallic mesh was interlaced with lightning flashes of strand lights, topped off by flashing bulbs to frame the stage. Inside, floor lamps littered the stage as if an antique shop just went out of business. The homey feel was brought into brilliant contrast by the walls covered in corrugated steel and the industrial windows on which Darrel Maloney’s subtle projections were displayed.  Each song was electrified by Townsend’s designs, whether they were bathed in deep purple or punctuated by sharp blasts of light. This cohesive design enfolds into this intimate atmosphere from the moment you set foot into the theater and is one of the most memorable aspects of the performance.

Tricia Kelly, Shay Saint-Victor, Kim Yarbrough, Mary Bridget Davies, and Sabrina Elayne Carten in 'One Night with Janis Joplin.' Photo by Jim Cox.
Tricia Kelly, Shay Saint-Victor, Kim Yarbrough, Mary Bridget Davies, and Sabrina Elayne Carten in ‘One Night with Janis Joplin.’ Photo by Jim Cox.

One Night with Janis Joplin is an absolute ‘Must See’ for any Janis fan and can be quite the treat for any appreciator of moving character arcs. This show was brought back for a reason, and I encourage you to find out why.

Running Time: Two hours and twenty minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

One Night with Janis Joplin plays through August 11, 2013 at Arena Stage at The Mead – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington DC. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.

Randy Johnson on Writing and Directing ‘One Night with Janis Joplin’ at Arena Stage by Joel Markowitz.

Mary Bridget Davies on playing Janis Joplin in ‘One Night With Janis Joplin’ at Arena Stage by Joel Markowitz.



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