Star Tribune: ‘A Night With Janis Joplin’ brings down the house at Ordway

Rohan Preston, Star Tribune 3/30/16

Tony nominee Mary Bridget Davies rocks the Ordway as 1960s hero Janis Joplin

Mary Bridget Davies was robbed.

Nominated for a 2014 Tony for her performance as rock icon Janis Joplin in “A Night With Janis Joplin,” the actor/singer lost out to Jessie Mueller, who was admittedly beautiful as Carole King. But Davies deserved at least a piece of that trophy for a powerful performance that Twin Cities audiences now can see through Sunday at Ordway Center.

In “Joplin,” which had its crunchingly loud opening Tuesday night, Davies doesn’t just impersonate Joplin. She channels the singer’s psychedelic soul. From her boozy diction to the bruised, husky voice, from her free-spirited mannerisms to her charismatic immersion in the music, Davies pours everything into Joplin. Her performance is at once intimate and brassy, raucous and refined.

With an air of honesty, Davies captures the essence of the artistic-minded misfit from Port Arthur, Texas, who grew to become a beloved emblem of authentic genius. Onstage at the Ordway, Davies’ Janis is often surrounded by a gallery of fiery black women who perform the songs that inspired her. There’s Odetta and Bessie Smith (both aced by Cicily Daniels), Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin (the fabulous Q. Smith), Etta James (gifted Tawny Dolley) and a generic blues singer (crystalline Jennifer Leigh Warren).

These women share equal stage time with Davies, and it makes sense, even if it might be surprising. Joplin was an outcast for much of her youth, partly because of her artistic temperament, her chubbiness and the fact that she listened to “race music.” She found comfort in the voice and distilled suffering of African-Americans.

Writer-director Randy Johnson glides over the harshest elements of her biography in “Janis,” which is structured as a rock ’n’ roll concert. We see Joplin’s ever-present bottle of Southern Comfort, but he does not play up her addictions, which led to her death at 27 in 1970. Her failed romantic life also is unexplored.

The show has tremendous standout numbers by Davies, including “Piece of My Heart,” which earned an instant ovation, and “Cry Baby,” another showstopper. Warren also won an ovation for the R&B standard “Today I Sing the Blues.”

Joplin lived her life for music, and found herself most at home there. In song, she was strong and vulnerable, fearless and afraid. “Joplin” is not just a concert biography of one person, but an urgent, howling cry from a bygone era.

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