Thursday, August 02, 2012

One Night With Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin and the black blues divas are alive and well at CPH

There is a love-in going on at the Cleveland Play House’s Allen Theatre between Janis Joplin and the audience. Janis Joplin? She’s dead. She died in 1970 at the age of 27. You’d never know it from the happenings on the CPH stage. Mary Bridget Davies, who took over the role opening night, doesn’t imitate Janis, she is Janis!

Davies stepped in when Cat Stephani withdrew from the role for “personal reasons.” Davies, who was the understudy, captivated the audience. Don’t know what Stephani can do, but Davies, as one Joplin’s songs states, got a “Piece of My Heart.”

Joplin is remembered for her mass of flying hair, which she regularly ran her hands through, her unconventional appearance and off the wall clothing choices. Her 1960s beatnik lifestyle, and amazing voice, led to her being called, “The Queen of Rock and Roll” and “The Queen of Psychedelic Soul.”
Her rise to prominence came as the lead singer with the acid rock band, Big Brother and the Holding Company.

ONE NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN, which was created, written and directed by Randy Johnson, with the full support of the estate of Janis Joplin and Jeffrey Jampol for JAM, and the Joplin family, is a tribute to the great lady of rock and the blues.

Davies, or is it Janis (?), stands center stage and talks to the audience. She ad libs to fit the reactions of the enamored, many of whom were dressed in tie-dye shirts, head bands, and long haired wigs. The audience responded with peace signs, singing the words to the great one’s songs and imitating the performer’s gestures. Obviously they saw the “other” Janis in her “other” life.

Songs included: My Baby, Maybe, Down on Me, Piece of My Heart, Today I Sing the Blues, Try, Kozmic Blues, I Shall be Released, Mercedes Benz, and the finale, I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven.

At various times during the performance the audience was clapping, singing and stomping. Yes, Cleveland is noted for freely give standing ovations, but has there ever been a play where there were seven standing “O’s” during the performance and jumping, screaming and flower-throwing for the curtain calls? Remember, this was a play, not a rock concert. Well, maybe a combination play and rock concert.

Not only does Davies wail, but there are the amazing vocal performances by Sabrina Elayne Carten, who sings the roles of the black blues divas who influenced Joplin. Carten sings the likes of Aretha Franklin, Bessie Smith, and Nina Simone.

The staging is as amazing as Davies and Carten. Scenic and lighting designer Justin Townsend, sound designer, Carl Casella and projection and video designer, Darrel Maloney, let out all the stops.

The stage is ablaze with psychedelic colors and lights, Janis’s paintings are flashed on electronic panels at the rear of the stage, the lights pulse to the beats of the music, smoky effects steam forth to add a surreal feel to the goings on. These production qualities could not have been possible in the old CPH venue.

Stephen Flakus and the band, which is ever present on stage, are rock concert perfect. The eight-instrument group is well-integrated into every aspect of the show.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ONE NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN is musical play, rock concert and love-in, all mashed into one! Doesn’t matter if you are a blues, rock and roll, or Joplin fan or not, there is no way you aren’t going to leave this performance on an emotional high! Bravo. Yes, Bravo, bravo, bravo!

BTW---the show would have been better served by a more upbeat opening announcement. The staid “turn off the cell phones mantra” needed a rock exciting sound to get the assemblage in the mood! Come on CPH, get with it!