Arena Stage One Night with Janis JoplinBy Bob Ashby • Oct 5th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Arena Stage-Kreeger, Washington DC
Through November 4th
2:25 with one intermission
$79-$109 (Plus fees)
Reviewed October 4th, 2012
The 1960s — the wonderful, terrible 60s — are gone. They aren’t coming back. The romanticism of that time — the conviction that one could change the world by living one’s feelings intensely and authentically — seems very innocent now. Randy Johnson’s One Night with Janis Joplin vividly recreates an important piece of the 60s musical and emotional experience, to an enthusiastic reception from Arena Stage’s audience (many of whom appeared to be of the baby boom generation that lived through the period).
Mary Bridget Davies does full justice to Joplin with passionate, nothing-held-back performances of songs ranging from “Piece of My Heart” to “Me and Bobby McGee” to “Ball and Chain” and “Stay With Me.” She conveys the full range of Joplin’s voice, from pure and clear to whispers to raspy screams.
The production is imagined as a concert that Joplin might have given in the 60s. While Davies’ Joplin provides some biographical details, in the manner of a singer’s patter between numbers, the show fortunately avoids attempting a sort of Mark Twain Tonight approach to Joplin’s life. The Joplin that Johnson and Davies gives us is Joplin as performer, loving and needing her relationship with an audience, and telling you who she is through her music. Aside from a few very brief, indirect references, the Joplin who numbed, and ultimately killed, herself with alcohol and drugs is absent.
Johnson succeeds beautifully in presenting the influences that shaped Joplin’s music, above all the blues. His primary instrument for doing so a character called the “Blues Singer.” Sabrina Elayne Carten, every bit as much a vocal powerhouse as Davies, does not so much impersonate Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, and others as represent their sounds as heard by Joplin as she develops as an artist. Carten’s “Spirit in the Dark,” which concludes the first half of the show, brought the audience to its feet. She collaborated memorably with Davies in such songs as “Summertime,” the poignant “Little Girl Blue,” and “I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven.” Backup singers Laura Carbonell, Alison Cusano, and Shinnerrie Jackson provided excellent support to the two leads.
A music-centered production like One Night requires a strong band, and the show’s eight-piece ensemble deserves star billing in its own right. The work of Stephen Flakus and Ross Seligman on guitar and Mitch Wilson on drums was particularly notable. Amusingly, the musicians’ long hair was noticeably cleaner than it would have been in the 60s.
The technical side of the production is equally outstanding. Justin Townsend’s set consists of a main playing area surrounded by a collection of floor lamps, behind which the band is arrayed. There is a curved stairway on stage right (often used by the backup singers) and an upper-level platform. The platform is covered by a set of translucent panels that variously act as a scrim and a projection screen, most spectacularly for a psychedelic color image near the end of the show. At times, the panel unit flies up to provide an additional, commanding performance space for Davies and Carten.
The lighting design, also by Townsend, is bright, multicolored, complex, and rapidly changing, adding significantly to the period and concert feel of the production. The Arena management thoughtfully made earplugs available; they weren’t needed. Carl Casella’s sound design managed the considerable feat of making the evening sound like a rock concert, the kind one feels as well as hears, without deafening the audience.
The production provides a glimpse of the 60s world and the life and history of a singer who her biographer, quoted in the program, described as “a very fierce, very beautiful bright light that burned out way, way too quickly.” But come to this show for the music: it’ll knock your socks off.
Photos by Janet Macoska
- Janis Joplin: Mary Bridget Davies
- Blues Singer: Sabrina Elayne Carten
- Backup singer/Janis Joplin Understudy: Laura Carbonell
- Backup Singer/Janis Joplin Alternate: Alison Cusano*
- Backup Singer/Blues singer Understudy: Shinnerrie Jackson
*The program notes that Alison Cusano will play Janis Joplin on Wednesday and Saturday matinees and Sunday evening performances.
- Guitar/Associate Musical Director: Stephen Flakus
- Guitar: Ross Seligman
- Bass: Patrick Harry
- Keyboard: Tyler Evans
- Drums: Mitch Wilson
- Saxophone: David Milne
- Trumpet: Gavriel De Tarr, Anton Van Oosbree
- Randy Johnson: Creator/playwright/director
- Len Rhodes: Musical director/arranger
- Justin Townsend: Set and lighting designer
- Jeff Cone: Costume designer
- Carl Casella: Sound designer
- Darrel Maloney: Projection designer
- Jennifer Matheson Collins: Stage manager
- Keri Schultz: Assistant Stage Manager
Disclaimer: Arena Stage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/8708.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.