What do you think of when you hear the name Janis Joplin? Depending on your generation, you may not have heard of the Port Arthur, Texas native. You might think she was a hippie chick from the ’60s who sang rock and roll. You might think she was a casualty of the music industry, a member of the 27 club — artists who died tragically at 27 (Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and many more).
Janis Joplin on Broadway is none of those stories. This isn’t a tragic tale of drug-addicted artist. A Night With Janis Joplin is a fiery celebration of soul music told through the eyes of one of the greatest blues singer ever — white or Black, male or female. Brilliantly written and flawlessly directed by Randy Johnson, this is one of the best Broadway shows I have ever witnessed. If I never see another Broadway show again, I am confident this production is enough to satisfy me for a lifetime. Janis Joplin on the Great White Way is soul that Broadway has never experienced.
Janis Joplin is magically brought to life by the ferocious Mary Bridget Davies — a Cleveland native with rip-roaring vocals. You would think God himself slipped Joplin’s vocal chords in Davies’ throat. One might say Broadway and Janis is a mismatch, but thanks to Johnson and Davies, nothing is watered down or made palatable for the sometimes-conservative Broadway crowd. Davies wails through classics like “Piece of My Heart,” the haunting “Summertime” and the heartbreaking “Ball and Chain.” Her uncanny ability to fully immerse every molecule of her being into Janis gave Davies a standing ovation after nearly every song. If not standing, mouths were dropped with people whispering to the person closest to them, “How is she doing this?”
But Janis wasn’t just about the vocals. She was a woman who deeply felt music. In her performance, Mary Bridget Davies, 35, cracks open the heartbreak, joy, pain, redemption and nuance of “The blues is just a good woman feeling bad.” If Davies doesn’t receive a Tony nomination for her earth-shattering performance, then the Great White Way is clearly out of touch with talent. Mary Bridget Davies is everything a performer should be — musical perfection.
Randy Johnson told the life story of the blues icon via women who made Janis want to sing: Bessie Smith (Taprena Michelle Augstine), Etta James (Nikki Kimbrough), Nina Simone (de’Adre Aziza) and even Aretha Franklin (Allison Blackwell). Where else are you going to see all of these soul divas brought to life on stage? The four women are astoundingly phenomenal, moving the crowd in the way Janis must’ve been moved. One notable performance was Taprena Michelle Augstine having her “And I Am Telling You” moment as she brazenly slayed the audience with “Today I Sing the Blues.” The audience nearly caught the Holy Ghost.
A Night With Janis Joplin tells an extraordinary story of woman who loved music and never forget her roots. We witness how music transforms, inspires and rejuvenates the human spirit. Davies’ vulnerability illuminates the stage, she can not only scream like Janis but she can make you feel like you are sitting with Janis in a bar, hearing the story of many women (and men) who want love, happiness and not to go home alone.
This is the must-see Broadway production of the season. Most importantly, the show doesn’t turn Janis into Broadway. A Night With Janis Joplin turns Broadway into Janis.
A Night With Janis Joplin is playing at the Lyceum Theatre in New York City.