MILWAUKEE - In the 1960s, we
would have referred to “One Night with Janis Joplin” as a happening.
Whatever the word is now for an electric event such as this, it still rings true
as unforgettable, no matter what year it occurs.
Mary Bridget Davies, with an
uncanny physical resemblance to Janis Joplin, has also captured her voice and
her characteristic movements and style. Just as her sister Linda remarked when
seeing this show, “Janis may have died in 1970, but she comes alive again when
she shares a funny story onstage, belts out her songs with her unique emotional
wrapping and pushes me to share my emotional bonding ... and the thrill of
feeling the power of those times and this woman.”
I never saw Janis Joplin
perform live. I only experienced her unique power and driving rhythms on TV,
where she performed on the Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson shows, two entertainers
who encouraged young musicians and comedians. But speaking to some diehard
Joplin fans, they concurred that this show was a freaky resurrection of sorts.
Leaving home at 18 and dying
of a drug overdose at 27, Joplin packed her short life with intensity, combining
the influence of blues singers such as Bessie Smith, Etta James, Nina Simone,
Odetta and Aretha Franklin with the pounding rhythms of rock ‘n’ roll. Her
searing style and her complete immersion in every song was quite amazing. How
that voice kept going on night after night is miraculous.
Some of her signature
numbers that Davies performed included “My Baby,” “Piece of My Heart”
and “Stay with Me,” all delivered with heart and soul. Also included are
several of her own compositions - “Turtle Blues,” “Down on Me,”
“Kozmic Blues” and “Mercedes Benz.” The combination of vulnerability and
toughness is her unique mix. A bonus and enhancement to her singing was the
terrific eight-piece band, consisting of Ross Seligman and Stephen Flakus
(guitars), Patrick Harry (bass), Tylar Evans (keyboard), Mitch Wilson (drums),
Blair Bielawski (saxophone) and Greg Garcia and Brett Murphey (trumpets). The
three backup singers, Shay Saint-Victor, Alison Cusano and Kimberly Yarbrough,
added to the fullness of the arrangements.
The most significant
addition to the ensemble is Sabrina Elayne Carten, a versatile singer who is as
comfortable with an operatic version of “Summertime” as she is with the
gospel of Odetta, the blues of Simone, and the rock of Franklin. This woman has
a presence and a set of pipes to be reckoned with. Occasionally, she and Davies
combined their prowess.
Justin Townsend’s set
design captured the atmosphere. The audience waving their light sticks and
jumping up with many standing ovations all contributed to the mesmerizing
effects - this is an opportunity not to be passed by.
I’m not even a big rock
‘n’ roll fan, but I know quality when I hear it. Thanks to Randy Johnson,
who created and directed this show, and to Mark Clements, the artistic director
of The Milwaukee Rep, who treated us with this amazing production.
“One Night with Janis
Joplin” runs through June 2 with eight shows a week in the Quadracci
Powerhouse Theatre, 108 E. Wells St., Milwaukee.
Call 414-224-9490 or visit www.milwaukeerep.com for show times and tickets.