Rant ‘N’ Roll: A Night With Janis Joplin

I saw Janis Joplin twice: Woodstock in 1969 and The Stanley Theater in Jersey City in the middle of an intense snowstorm. Not too many people showed up so we ran to the first few rows before cops started wielding nightsticks to drive us back to the cheap seats. Janis saw this and actually stopped the concert, chastising the cops for being assholes and permitting us entry to the first few empty rows.

At the Lyceum Theater in New York City, there was no bum-rushing the stage. This was Broadway, after all, yet the well-heeled patrons who filled the seats roared their approval as the amazing Mary Bridget Davies starred in A Night With Janis Joplin. Davies is a whirlwind. She looks just like her, talks just like her, acts just like her and damn if she doesn’t sing even better. Festooned in proper hippie attire, and swigging from a bottle of Southern Comfort, she commands the 2:15 concert and, yes, Janis is alive during this time. Totally, thrillingly, vibrantly, amazingly alive.

She does have some help. The on stage eight-piece band—guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, saxophone, trumpet and trombone—kick serious ass. The “Joplinaire” back-up singers provide some spectacular moments of their own, especially when they beautifully, perfectly, stunningly and dramatically portray Joplin’s heroes in moments of such sheer transcendence, one can only swoon in appreciation. The lighting, the choreography, the attention-to-detail period costuming, I mean, man, when Bessie Smith comes out to sing “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out,” it’s a moment in blues heaven.

Y’see, Janis loved the blues. She was no rock ‘n’ roll singer at first. Going to San Francisco and hooking up with a psychedelic rock band called Big Brother & The Holding Company was only because she was so desperate to get out of the hellhole of Port Arthur, Texas.

But there is no biography on this night. Randy Johnson wrote and directed this as a celebration of the music Janis loved: blues, baby, blues. And there’s plenty of it here. You want to know more about Joplin’s death at 27 from an accidental overdose of heroin? Go read Buried Alive by Myra Friedman. That’s not what this night is all about.

This night is about the music. There’s no dialogue. But there’s monologue. Janis talks quite articulately, and with the proper amount of profanity, about her sister, her desires, her love of the blues and her love of the ladies who first sang the songs that propelled her to stardom. Thus, you thrill to Etta James doing “Tell Mama” and Odetta first singing “Down On Me” prior to Janis launching into her signature version of the same song. You see and hear where these songs came from. You walk away with a more nuanced understanding of both the music itself and Joplin’s motivations thereof. Aretha Franklin was one of her heroes too, and in a spectacularly rousing finale to Act #1, Janis and Aretha, in a dream sequence, jam out on “Spirit In The Dark.” (Interestingly enough, Joplin’s signature song, “Piece Of My Heart,” was originally recorded by Aretha’s big sister, Erma Franklin, just months before Janis got her hands on it.)

Act #2 opens in a burst with Janis exhorting the crowd into action during “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder).” She explains that being on stage is like sex to her. She’s fucking her audiences and she wants them to fuck back. Who wouldn’t?

The segment where De’Adre Aziza almost scarily brings back the great Nina Simone for “Little Girl Blue” is a respite from the party, a moment of reflection, and works well before Janis rocks ‘em and socks ‘em with “Cry Baby.” Of course, the epitome of the passion, the top of the mountain, the moment this reporter was waiting for, the apex of Act #2, is “Ball And Chain.” Originally written and recorded by Big Mama Thornton, one has to wonder why the Big Mama wasn’t represented along with Etta, Nina, Bessie, Odetta and Aretha. Janis was quite honest about the effect of Big Mama on her art. But that’s a minor quibble.

The night ends with the sing-along “Mercedes Benz.” Another highlight in an evening filled with highlights is Kris Kristofferson’s “Me And Bobby McGee” fit to raise a lump in your throat. This is an obvious Tony-winning performance by Mary Bridget Davies. I’ll be surprised if A Night With Janis Joplin isn’t a runaway hit and plays for years. If it doesn’t, then there’s just no musical Broadway justice.

Can Jimi be far behind?