TR Robertson — Hundreds of Janis Joplin fans were swept back to the 1960’s over the weekend with the incredible sounds of Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company with the performance of the Tony Award nominated “A Night With Janis Joplin”. This high energy, moving performance, at the Escondido Performing Arts Center, was part of the California Tour of the former Broadway musical wrapping up their October tour. If this wasn’t enough, the audience was also treated to incredible performances by singers performing the music of singers who inspired and influenced Janis Joplin. These historic and inspirational blues singers included Bessie Smith, Odetta, Nina Simone, Etta James and Aretha Franklin. Even more amazing was the evening performance was the second show that day and the enthusiasm and energy on stage was as though they were performing for the first time.
Reprising her role as Janis, for which she received a Tony Award nomination for Best Lead Actress in a Musical, is Mary Bridget Davies. As Janis, she wandered the stage, talking about her life, beginning in Port Arthur, Texas, talking about growing up and the influence her mother had on her, her life with her siblings, what lead her away from Port Arthur, back to Port Arthur and away again, and most importantly, who influenced her and why. Davies voice radiates Janis Joplin. Her range, her tone, the raspy changes her voice went through over the years, all left the audience feeling they had just seen Janis Joplin on stage. Numerous standing ovations throughout the evening showed both the enthusiasm and thrill the audience had with her performances.
Equally moving and entertaining were the four ladies who played the Joplinaires and Chantels as well as performing individually as the blues singers who most were the most influential singers that helped Joplin develop and mimic the style she would develop. These singers included Aurianna Angelique as Odetta, Bessie Smith and a Chantel. As Bessie Smith, she gave a very sexy interpretation to “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and as Odetta the audience got to see the difference between Odetta’s “Down on Me” and the version Janis Joplin would sing.. Ashley Tamar Davis performed as Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and as a Chantel. As Aretha, Davis had the house rocking as she sang with Janis, “Spirit in the Dark”. As Simone she teamed with Janis to sing “Little Girl Blue”. Tawny Dolley would perform as Etta James and a Chantel. Dolley would team with Davis and Angelique on different versions of “I Shall be Released”. Jennifer Leigh Warren plays a Blues Singer, the Lead Chantel and a Joplinaire. All of these performers were absolutely amazing, tremendous voices, award winning with numerous theatrical experiences and many with Broadway and Off-Broadway experience.
The show would cover a wide range of Joplin’s memorable songs. Five of her singles would reach the Billboard Hot 100. Included in the show were “Summertime”, “Piece of My Heart”, “Try Just a Little Bit Harder”, “Stay With Me” and “I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven”. “Me & Bobby McGee”, written by Kris Kristofferson, reached #1 in 1971 on the Billboard charts. Davies version Joplin’s Big Mama Thornton’s ,“Ball and Chain”, brought the house down and she encouraged the audience to join in singing “Mercedes Benz”.
“A Night With Janis Joplin” was written and directed by Randy Johnson. The musical premiered in 2013 at the Lyceum Theatre in New York City. His creative team, putting together the colorful, psychedelic staging of the performance, included Stage Manager Jessica R. Aguilar, Costume Designer Amy Clark, Hair and Make-up Designer Leah J. Loukas, Projection Designer Darrel Maloney, Lighting Designer Ryan J. O’Gara, Scenic Designer Brian Prather and Choreographer Patricia Wilcox. At times, many in the audience flashed back to the 60’s when all concerts featured large screens with colorful oil and water images swooshing across the backdrops. The stage costumes matched the dress many in the audience wore to the show – tie-dyed t-shirts, bell bottoms, head bands, puffy sleeves and much more.
The eight piece band, creating the wonderful Big Brother and the Holding Company/Kozmic Blues Band sound included Jesse Kapsha, Alexander Prezzano, Nick Novelli, Chase Flemming, PJ Holaday, Chris Smucker, Timothy Weiss and Mike Mulligan.
During the evening, the audience learned a little of the background of Janis Joplin. Davies would intersperse Joplin’s story between songs. Janis Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1943. We also learn her mother loved Broadway musicals and the Joplin children would grown up singing songs as they did their chores. Joplin’s favorite musical was “Porgy and Bess”. She also worked in a toy store, in a bowling alley and in a coffee house where she displayed many of her paintings. Joplin, nicknamed Pearl, loved the local library, especially the art books. Her first stage performances were in Austin, Texas, as she sang on stage at Threadgills and her love of blues music would grow and grow. There were occasional allusions to the men in her life and minor references to her fight with alcohol and drug addiction. Joplin would return to Port Arthur, after a short venture to California, to combat her addictions. She had stayed in California from 1963-1965. She fought an addiction to speed, LSD, Heroin and Methamphetamines from her teen years to her death from heroin overdose in Hollywood in 1970. When she arrived back in Port Arthur, in 1963, Joplin weighed only 88 lbs. While in Texas, the second time, Joplin would stop using drugs and alcohol and enrolled in college to major in anthropology. This wouldn’t last long as she would meet up with the band Big Brother & the Holding Company in 1966 and the rest is Rock n’ Roll History. As she began to travel the performing circuit, drug and alcohol use followed her. Joplin would always have a bottle or two of Southern Comfort on stage and by 1969 it has been written that she was using over $1,000 worth of heroin a day. After her death, Joplin would be elected to the 1995 Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and in 2005 receive a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Davies, as Joplin, would say “The Blues is a feeling based on have nots. I don’t have this so I got the blues”. She feels the blues tells the real story about the way people really feel about things and what they are experiencing. This play shows you a glimpse into the life of this legendary singer and those around her. If you ever get a chance to see this musical, even if you are not a child of the 60’s and you love Rock n’ Roll from the 60’s, you’ve got to include this on your must see list.
Congrats to the Escondido Performing Arts Center on another tremendous offering on their performance schedule.