News Column

Tribute Show Shines Best Through Music

October 11, 2013

YellowBrix

THEATER REVIEW

A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN

New Broadway musical, at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St.

Written and directed by Randy Johnson.

With Mary Bridget Davies.

Schedule: Varies.

Tickets: $49 to $140. 212-239-6200 or telecharge.com.

The title of "A Night With Janis Joplin," which opened Thursday night at the Lyceum Theatre, pretty much describes, explains and sums up the show. But the evening is also of interest as a case history in how some people -- in this case writer-director Randy Johnson -- construct tribute musicals about dead rock-and-rollers.

The songs come first here -- with nothing else a close second.

Joplin, who had about five years of fame before dying in 1970 of a heroin overdose at the age of 27, is portrayed by Mary Bridget Davies (and at Wednesday and Saturday matinees by Kacee Clanton).

Davies has a credible physical resemblance to Joplin, and an even stronger vocal one.

On a set oddly decorated with clusters of small table lamps, she pierces the air with primal, lung-bursting screams and screeches, storming through such Joplin hits as "Me and Bobby McGee," "Mercedes Benz," "Piece of My Heart" and "Ball and Chain," as well as a deconstruction of Gershwin's "Summertime" that's deeply emotional, if barely recognizable. Davies' fervent singing italicizes Joplin's role as a rock pioneer, a strong-willed, free-spirited performer who was as tough and distinctive as the most notable male singers.

If the production, which includes a first-rate eight-piece band, successfully conveys Joplin the vocalist, it's much less successful when Joplin talks.

Davies has been touring in the show, and her acting has lost any sense of spontaneity. When she says, "There's a lot of groovy people here tonight, man! ... Are you ready to party!" she's a performer saying (admittedly woeful) lines, rather than being Joplin.

The other night, a member of the audience shouted out something unintelligible during a rare quiet moment.

A brief ad-lib response from the character onstage would have been appropriate, but Davis, after an awkward instant's hesitation, just continued with her scripted lines.

Between songs, Joplin relates a G-rated version of her tumultuous life: She grew up happily in a close Texas family, before hitting the road to find herself. She takes a couple of swigs from a bottle of Southern Comfort, but that's the only hint that she might have, ahem, an addiction problem (even though she'd promised, "What I'm going to do tonight [is] tell it like it is!").

The script is littered with banalities about the blues, which were a great influence on Joplin. ("No one feels the blues like a woman," "It's the want of something that gives you the blues, man.")

The most innovative thing that happens is Joplin sharing the stage with the performers whose styles helped shape her singing.

There are performances by imitators of Bessie Smith (Taprena Michelle Augustine), Etta James (Nikki Kimbrough), Odetta and Nina Simone (both portrayed by De'Adre Aziza, who grew up in Teaneck).

Aretha Franklin (Allison Blackwell), rather bizarrely, takes over the show from the headliner at the end of the first act. She then introduces Joplin -- who moments earlier had introduced Franklin. The interludes featuring the "role model" singers serve a pragmatic function: Davies would likely suffer vocal exhaustion if she didn't get some breaks during the demanding evening. Unfortunately, the concept is haphazardly presented.

If you're a Joplin aficionado, you'll probably enjoy the show for Davies' singing, and be able to overlook the shortcomings. If you're not a fan, keep walking.

A service of YellowBrix, Inc.


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