A Night with Janis Joplin
Written and Directed By: Randy Johnson
Music and Lyrics By: Various Artists
Distributed by: Broadway Records
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
Since the very first day I heard Piece of My Heart on my parents' 8-track tape playing stereo (yes, I'm that old), I was a Janis Joplin fan. That strong bluesy-rock voice, belting out that song with so much feeling, attracted me like no other singer I had yet heard and I was mesmerized by it. To this day, something about Janis Joplin has always felt larger than life to me and it saddens me to think that such a talent could be lost at such a young age (27 due to heroine overdose). Despite the early death of Janis Joplin, she remains an inspiration for many an artist today.
Keeping that in mind, you have to know that I was excited to hear of a new musical centered on Janis Joplin. A Night with Janis Joplin opened in Portland, Oregon in May 2011 and has been wowing audiences ever since, appearing now on Broadway for a limited time. And you had to know that I was excited about the next piece of news I heard. Broadway Records, in celebration of the musical and the woman herself, has announced the release of the Original Broadway Cast Recording of A Night with Janis Joplin digitally on the singer's birthday, January 17, 2014. The CD album, already available at the Lyceum Theatre, will become available to all on February 11, 2014, two days after the show closes on Broadway. I simply couldn't wait to listen to this album!
A Night with Janis Joplin is a re-telling of Janis' life, but in a different format than most musicals. The format for this musical is much like that of a solo concert in a small nightclub. Janis Joplin (Mary Bridget Davies) talks to us about her life, revisiting her past to discuss the influential singers in her life like Odetta and Nina Simone (De' Adre Aziza), The Chantels, Etta James (Nikki Kimbrough), Bessie Smith (Taprena Michelle Augustine) and Aretha Franklin (Allison Blackwell). We learn of her love for blues and her unique twist on the music formed early in life and performed on stage in a small Texas roadhouse. As the singer tells her story, we learn that she felt blues in her heart and soul, sometimes believing that the blues would somehow consume her eventually. But no matter what the future was to bring her, Janis promises to always be true to herself and to never be what someone else wants her to be.
Throughout the singer's tale, we hear iconic songs such as Maybe, Try (Just A Little Bit Harder), Cry Baby, Down on Me, Piece of My Heart, Stay With Me, Me and Bobby McGee and Mercedes Benz. We also hear a song Janis never got to record, I'm Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven. According to Jerry Ragovoy, co-writer of most of Janis Joplin's hits, this particular track was supposed to be recorded the day after the singer was found dead in her hotel room. We also hear songs from singers who greatly influenced Janis like the Chantels' version of Maybe, Tell Mama, Summertime and more.
First, let me say that Mary Bridget Davies does an amazing job portraying Janis Joplin. She talks like her, moves like her (from what I've seen in promos) and sings very much like her (though I don't think anyone can do Janis Joplin perfectly). Performances by the other artists in the musical are not as well-performed or even close to the originals as those by Davies. I enjoyed learning more about what influenced Janis Joplin and I believe that Randy Johnson perfectly captured that free spirit of the singer and her incredible love and feeling for the music she was listening to and performing. I was surprised not to hear Get It While You Can, but was otherwise greatly pleased with the song selection.
I'd love to give this album a glowing review, but I have mixed emotions after listening to it a number of times. I grew up listening to the singer (albeit posthumously) and there is a difference. I believe that, try as hard as they can, each singer who performs her work is going to put their own spin on the songs. Davies tries to be faithful to Joplin, but she isn't always perfect in her interpretations. And yet, I could be looking for the utterly impossible - a resurrection of a singer that I really would have loved to see in concert - thus coloring my A Night with Janis Joplin experience.
That being said, I want to make certain that those who read this review understand that I did enjoy listening to...and of course, singing along with...A Night with Janis Joplin. I thought that the idea behind the musical was incredibly creative and am thankful that the writer and director of the musical, Randy Johnson, worked with Janis Joplin's brother and sister and collaborators to get everything just right. True Joplin fans may have the same difficulties I had with the album, but I think it's worth checking out just for the experience.