Going into this show, I didn’t know much about the late singer Janis Joplin, I knew the raspy voice, the feathers in her hair, the brightly colored psychedelic sunglasses and that she died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27. Not a great picture of one of the most instrumental singer-songwriters in history. In an effort to not come across like an uneducated moron, I’ve done my research in great detail.
Janis Joplin was born on January 19th, 1943 in Port Arthur, Texas. Like most progressive minded people, she hated her conservative little town almost from birth. She finished high school before heading to University Of Texas at Austin. Along the way she discovered the music of the black blues singers of the day. Names like Odetta, Billie Holiday, Ma Rainey, Lead Belly and Bessie Smith. It wasn’t popular for a white person to like anything black in the 1950’s, but that didn’t stop Janis who once said, “I was a misfit. I read. I painted. I didn’t hate n***ers.” She never finished college, but gained notoriety as a barefooted, auto-harp carrying free spirit on campus.
Janis Joplin toured, recorded and traveled the world, becoming a phenomenon in the hippie movement. She played bars in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, Woodstock, and everything in between. She earned the title, “The Queen of Rock & Roll” and her electric stage presence was compared to Elvis Presley. After an off and on struggle with drug use, Joplin’s life was cut short on October 4th, 1970 when she overdosed on heroin in the Landmark Hotel in Hollywood.
Janis’ little sister Laura Joplin has spearheaded the movement to keep her sister’s legacy alive. Laura was instrumental in the production of the musical Love, Janis and this new work, One Night With Janis Joplin, was produced with close oversight by Janis’ estate. I saw the show Wednesday night, Laura and other family members were in theatre. The closeness to Janis and her family is apparent in the finished work. A combination biography and rock concert, this show is nothing short of spectacular in every possible way.
Cat Stephani was initially cast as Janis Joplin. After she left the show for “personal reasons,” I overheard a rumor that she blew out her voice after two shows, her understudy, Lakewood native Mary Bridget Davies stepped into the role on the 29th. It was decided, and officially announced on Monday, that Davies will be taking over the lead role permanently. After seeing her performance last night, it’s a no brainer. Her pipes are so powerful that she might have even given Joplin a run for her money. Her look is spot on, mannerisms accurate, and her stage presence is nothing short of electric. I felt as though I was watching Janis Joplin perform through a living host. Psychedelic huh? Davies is an absolute rock star and is one of the most powerful vocalists I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing live.
Speaking of ridiculously talented vocalists, Sabrina Elayne Carten is absolutely haunting as she channels R&B divas of a by gone era. Her rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “Spirit In The Dark” is nothing short of a religious experience. As Carten belted this number out last night I turned to Derek and said, “We’re havin’ some church now!” Did I mention that I was on my feet when I said that? I have never before experienced a piece of theatre so well done that the audience was moved to their feet multiple times throughout the show. The normal “Cleveland standing O” did not apply, the Wednesday night crowd reacted out of pure joy and love for the music coming from the Allen Theater’s hallowed stage.
The set is big and flawlessly executed, the lighting pops, the sound is perfect, the band is fantastic, and the run of the show…way too short! I want to see this show again and again! Grab your tickets NOW before they sell out. One Night With Janis Joplin hits the road for a national tour on August 19th. Whether you are familiar with Janis Joplin, or a relative newbie like me, DO NOT MISS THIS SHOW!
Grab tickets and information at ClevelandPlayHouse.com.
UPDATE: I had the opportunity to sit down with the show’s star, Mary Bridget Davies. Check out the full interview here!