Theater Review: “One Night With Janis Joplin” at Arena Stage

Performer Mary Bridget Davies packs one mighty punch as the performer in Arena Stage’s production.

By: Missy Frederick

Nothing in the world is going to bring back Janis Joplin, but with Mary Bridget Davies at the microphone, pretending doesn’t feel so preposterous.

Davies’s voice is so raw, so powerful, and so eerily similar to the late singer that it brings a sense of authenticity and wonder to One Night With Janis Joplin, the concert-style musical being performed at Arena Stage (co-produced by the Cleveland Playhouse, where the show ran earlier). Director/creator Randy Johnson takes us back to when Joplin was at her performing peak, and Davies literally brings the house to its feet with impassioned takes on both the singer’s classics and other songs dear to her.

One Night is told primarily through music, though we get brief, often poignant glimpses into Joplin’s inner life as she shares autobiographical stories and philosophical asides between numbers. The set list is a hefty one—with 24 songs, the show clocks in at more than two and a half hours, but Davies’s tirelessness keeps this from feeling excessive. She also isn’t shouldering all of the musical burden—she’s flanked by a chill but formidable eight-piece band and three sultry, soulful backup singers.

One Night has another secret weapon in Sabrina Elayne Carten, who portrays all the black musical divas Joplin worshiped. Whether she’s channeling Nina Simone, dominating the stage as Aretha Franklin (“Spirit in the Dark” is an unapologetic showstopper), or merely offering a wistful, achingly beautiful rendition of Porgy and Bess’s “Summertime,” Carten is as exceptional a performer as Davies.

No Joplin classic, from “Me and Bobby McGee” to “Piece of My Heart,” is left out, and Davies makes her way through Joplin’s entire catalogue of hits. Her voice is remarkable not only for its uncanny likeness to Joplin’s, but for its richness, its contrasting coarseness and tenderness. Davies’s stage presence, casual and sexy, transitions from happy-go-lucky and carefree to something more troubled and complex.

The production never gets as dark as one might suspect given the singer’s real-life troubles and ultimate demise, though it foreshadows her inner turmoil. We never see Joplin at rock bottom, but Johnson does paint a portrait of the singer’s contradictions. Davies’s Joplin is simultaneously self-empowered and crushingly lonely; she says no man can provide the high that performing does, but still clearly aches for human companionship and connection. Never is this subtle sadness as apparent as during the show’s vocal climax. “Don’t you leave me all alone, stay with me, baby,” she wails. “I can’t make it on my own, stay with me, baby.” If only we could.

One Night With Janis Joplin runs through November 4 at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theatre. The show runs about two and a half hours, with one intermission. Tickets ($45 to $94) are available via Arena Stage’s website.