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By Nathaniel Cayanan
Under a hazy neon spotlight that illuminates the stage at the Pasadena Playhouse stands what seems to be a resurrected cultural icon. With an intoxicating voice and playfully animated presence, she sings with such raw emotion and meticulous harmony that makes all watching her just sit back and wonder at such apparently supernatural dexterity. She’s raw. Electric. Profound. That’s how to best describe Mary Bridget Davies’ stellar performance as 1960s rock ‘n’ roll icon Janis Joplin in the Tony Award-nominated production, A Night with Janis Joplin. Davies, from the moment she graces the stage with her presence, completely embodies Joplin, going beyond just mere impersonation and truly bringing to life a revolutionary figure that tragically died in 1970.
While the title of the show is “A Night with Janis Joplin,” Joplin actually shares the stage with the legendary singers who influenced her music and imparted essences of their voices that made them so memorable. Davies’ voice as Joplin infuses Nina Simone’s sincere yearning, Aretha Franklin’s caressing soul, Odetta’s folksy assertiveness and Bessie Smith’s full-bodied seductiveness. And these legendary singers not only maintain a presence in Davies’ voice as Joplin, but also in person on stage, through the incredibly talented avatars Sharon Catherine Brown, Yvette Cason, Jenelle Lynn Randall and Sylvia Maccalla.
Now, the show is not as much a play as it is a concert. There are no characters that Joplin interacts with directly, nor a real plot that specifically pushes an overall narrative forward. Instead, Davies, as Joplin, narrates a few anecdotes about her upbringing, her beginnings as a member of Big Brother and the Holding Company, her solo career and her philosophies that evolve as she and her music matured.
Additionally, the aesthetics, which mix digital media, vibrant lighting, and elaborate costuming, along with some really energetic choreography, truly keeps the show alive for the full two hours.
Sure, such a show will obviously appeal to a generation of baby boomers who grew up listening to Joplin, but the Randy Johnson-directed show can appeal to generations young and old. Why? Because A Night with Janis Joplin is a night full of soul, a spectacle as electrifying as the Energizer Bunny, and proof as to why Janis Joplin was and is the quintessential Queen of rock ‘n’ roll.
A Night with Janis Joplin will play until Aug. 16 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, California 91101. Show nights and times are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $55-$150, and can be purchased at www.pasadenaplayhouse.com, by calling (626) 356-7529, or in person at the box office.