It was fitting to watch One Night with Janis Joplin last night at The Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, because 42 years ago to the day the legendary blues rocker died of an overdose at the age of 27. I had heard the show was the closest one could get these days of seeing Janis Joplin in concert. That was enough to make me want to see to run and see it! I was pleasantly surprised the show was much more than a recreation of a Janis Joplin concert. It was a fitting tribute to the groundbreaking singer and it also celebrated the artists who influenced Janis – including Aretha Franklin, Bessie Smith, Odetta, Nina Simone, and Big Mama Thornton.
Janis Joplin’s vocals were raw, powerful, and emotional. She could deliver an incredible note and make you feel it in your soul. She is not an easy singer to portray. Mary Bridget Davies delivers a powerful performance in One Night with Janis Joplin. She nails the music and has incredible stage presence. It is easy to see why she has toured with Janis Joplin’s original band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. There is a story about the songs and Janis that she tells in between the songs – and sometimes within the songs – as she belts out the classics including “Down on Me,” “Try,” and “Me and Bobby McGee. Playwright, Director and creator Randy Johnson expertly drops the pieces of the story in and around the songs to really create a tribute to Janis and the woman who helped make her who she was.
Sabrina Elayne Carten plays the role of Blues Singer in this production. Her velvety smooth voice contrasts Davies’ vocals. She is a joy to listen to as she sings “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, and displays an incredible range as she portrays Odetta, Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thorton, and Aretha Franklin. Her highlights are numerous in this production and include the blues classic “Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out,” Aretha Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark” and an interesting cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall be Released.” Carten’s voice is a real treat for the ears.
Most of the band has been together since the world premiere production in 2011 at the Portland Center Stage. The amazing musicians have had time to become comfortable with each other and it shows. Guitarists Stephen Flakus and Ross Seligman switch between rhythm and leads flawlessly. Patrick Harry on bass and Mitch Wilson on drums create a formidable rhythm section. Tyler Evans adds his talents on keyboards. The sound is completed by a horn section consisting of David Milne on saxophone, Gavriel De Tarr on trumpet and Anton Van Oosbree on trumpet. Len Rhodes arranged and directed the music for the show which blended the blues singers in Janis Joplin’s mind and Janis Joplin in concert. Flakus served as Associate Musical Director and made sure the band delivered what Rhodes had in mind.
Laura Carbonell and Alison Cusano serve as backup singers and Janis Joplin understudies and alternatives respectfully. Shinnerrie Jackson completes the three- singer backup vocals and is the understudy for Blues Singer. The backup singers compliment Janis and Blues Singer on most numbers but get a chance to shine along with the band on solos during “Spirit in the Dark.”
Sound Designer Carl Casella and Sound Engineer Emma Burchett made sure the sound was flawless during the production. There were no unwanted buzzes or snafus to distract from the music. The theater even had ear plugs available for patrons in case the show became too loud. The crowd loved the music and were dancing and clapping throughout the show.
Jeff Cone designed wonderful costumes and teamed with wardrobe expert Ayana Fox and wigs and hair expert Vincent Hill – they had everyone looking like they were at a concert back in the psychedelic sixties. I loved how they transformed Carten from Blues Singer to Aretha Franklin, and how they made Davies look so much like Janis Joplin including her trademark hair which was accented with feathery items.
Scenic and Lighting Designer Justin Townsend transformed The Kreeger into a 60’s concert hall. Dan Ozminkowski, Alexandra Mannix, and Scott Folsom helped on the lights giving the show a real concert feel. The lights and set were complemented by the projection design by Darrel Maloney and programmed by Benjamin Keightley. Not only did the projections add to the concert experience – they also helped set the mood for the underlining story.
If you are a fan of the music of Janis Joplin, classic rock, or the blues – One Night with Janis Joplin is a show you won’t want to miss. This show sizzles and rocks!
Running time: Two hours and twenty minutes including one intermission.
One Night with Janis Joplin plays through November 4, 2012 in The Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. To purchase tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or buy them online.