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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.

Mary Bridget Davies in One Night With Janis Joplin. Photograph by Janet Macoska.

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