MN Theater Love reviews ‘A Night with Janis Joplin’

Minnesota Theater Love 3/30/16

If you are looking for a night of fantastic songs from a by-gone era, an amazing band and electrifying vocals – look no further than “A Night with Janis Joplin” playing at the Ordway through April 3rd. The whole evening is set up as a concert with Janis Joplin – played by the 2014 Tony Award nominee Mary Bridget Davies. It does not disappoint (unless you are looking for a traditional book musical.) The show starts a bit slow (at least on opening night) but I think that is mainly because it is a bit out of the ordinary for the traditional theater-going crowd. Once Davies let loose, she is a force to be reckoned with and she got the audience on her side, to the point of more than one mid-show standing ovations. The audience was not huge but they were enthusiastic, and were screaming for more. More than that it felt organic and not forced. It didn’t feel like “the band wants us to clap so we’ll clap”, nor did it feel like “we just got permission to scream in the theater, so let’s do it.” What it felt like was the audience wanted to clap, scream and get moving but needed a bit of guidance from the stage before letting loose. And once they let loose – the energy of the room shifted. It was great! I can only imagine the energy that would have been in a full house, or a smaller room.

The other great thing is that this was a strong female cast of amazing voices! The show is not “Beautiful” in that it doesn’t tell the story of Janis Joplin and her life. In fact, it is a bit cleaned up and family friendly. Yes, there is swearing however there is no mention of the drinking and drug use that eventually killed Janis at the age of 27 in 1970. What it does do though it give you an audience with Janis so that you can hear a bit of her life, and her influences. It was great seeing Etta James (Tawny Dolley), Bessie Smith, Odetta (both played by Cicily Daniels), Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone (both played by Q. Smith), and a character simply named Blues Singer (the amazing Jennifer Leigh Warren). All of these characters had some influence on what Janis sang and her connection to the blues. Hearing these women, these icons of song sing…then hearing Janis’s version of those same songs was fantastic. The ensemble was terrific and so versatile as they also sang some back-up vocals for Janis, and Aretha. The band was incredible as well. It was an all-male band (as was Big Brother and the Holding Company) and they sounded and looked the part.

The set was simple and effective. The costumes that made the ensemble into the icons were fantastic, and Ms Davies had the look, mannerisms and the voice of Janis Joplin down to a T. Honestly, there were times that were spine-tingling because I felt I was transported back to seeing Janis live and in person (especially with the projections behind the band – totally trippy and 60’s and perfect!) And if that is the experience you want, then you get your butt down to the Ordway and you have it. You will hear all the Janis songs that you want to hear, and more.

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