‘One Night With Janis Joplin’
By Randy Johnson
Mead Center for American Theater
Runs through Aug. 11
$40-$99 for various performances
Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.
Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Few music lovers — relatively speaking — had a chance to see Janis Joplin live considering she died in 1970. It’s tempting to say that “One Night With Janis Joplin,” the gay-penned (by Randy Johnson) tribute show playing now at Arena Stage, is the next best thing to the now-impossible notion of going to a Joplin performance.
And while the show is that, it’s also not just a cheesy rock tribute show of the type we see given in honor of classic rock acts all the time. It’s its own musical/theatrical experience with singer/actress Mary Bridget Davies in the title role earning raves for her uncanny ability at not just channeling but recreating Joplin’s trademark gutbucket vocals.
The show was a hit at Arena last fall when nearly 20,000 people saw it in Washington. It’s had successful engagements in Portland, Cleveland and Pasadena, Calif., and will open on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre in October.
Davies (34, straight and Helen Hayes Award-nominated for the role) whom we interviewed last year as well, took a few minutes with us by phone last week from her home in Cleveland to riff on everything from how the show has varied in different cities to why the Joplin allure remains undiminished decades after her untimely death. Her comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: How was the run at Arena versus other places you’ve played the show?
MARY BRIDGET DAVIES: Arena Stage runs like such a well-run ship. Nothing was ever a problem there. It was like summer camp for theater and we just had a really good time. I’m completely excited to come back.
BLADE: Some critics have said it seems like you were born to do this. Do you feel some cosmic destiny with Janis?
DAVIES: It’s weird, yeah, sometimes I do feel like she’s around. There are some accidental parallels too — frustrated attempts at college … she was just so free and I get to enjoy some of that. I mean, yes, I’m up there saying lines, I’m not just winging it, but she just had that wild abandon and I get to do that every night.
BLADE: Has the show changed since last fall?
DAVIES: Yes, it’s been evolving and getting tighter. We’re not like this tired old circus chorus walking in circles. We’ve had several little breaks so each time we come back excited to do it again. And I think we’ll enjoy it even more this time because the terrain is more familiar now.
BLADE: Have the crowd reactions varied much from city to city?
DAVIES: I was very, very nervous in Pasadena because it’s L.A., so anyone who was anyone came to the show. I mean, like, Cher was there one night. There was a lot of industry vibe there that gave it kind of a scary urgency. At Arena before, I would say we had the most forward people. People would try to get on the stage and dance. I kinda looked at the crew like, “Uh, what am I supposed to do here?” They would wrangle them off like in the Van Halen video. It’s kind of flattering that they were so moved they wanted to get up and jam but it does blur the lines a little. Secretly I was kinda OK with it as long as you don’t try to rip the mic out of my hand and say, “It’s my friend’s birthday.”
BLADE: Is it ever hard to find the balance between crowd interplay and performing it as a straight-up dramatic piece?
DAVIES: Yes. Like in Milwaukee we had this much smaller space with a modified thrust stage. It was almost more fun on one hand but also more intimidating too. If you had a bruise or something, they could see it, it was that close. As a performer you really shouldn’t let the crowd dictate the proceedings but there is something of that fourth wall break because this isn’t a straight-up dramatic piece or a musical. People don’t always realize that. They’ll be on their phone or act like they’re home watching TV. One dude went to sleep. I’m like, “Are you kidding me? This is really hard!” Another guy held a tablet on his lap and taped the entire show.
BLADE: I know technically that’s a no-no, but still, from a historical perspective, think how awful it would be if nobody had bootlegged any of Janis’s shows. We’d have so much less to go on. As long as somebody isn’t trying to profit off of it, isn’t there some value in stealth recording?
DAVIES: Oh yeah, in terms of my research and as a fan, I get that. The rock and roll part of me thinks that’s cool but then on the other hand with the copyright issues, you have to respect that too. You don’t want some 30-second barrage out of someone’s purse showing up on YouTube.
BLADE: As great a run as you’re having with this, is there some part of you that’s concerned about your entire persona and identity getting swallowed up by the myth of Janis?
DAVIES: I have people come up to me and say, “Aren’t you that Janis girl?” I wear it as a badge of honor. I think I’ve been able to maintain a balance. I just released my own album — which Arena has been very kind to let me sell at the shows — and I was nominated for a blues music award. And I take my down time to try to stay current within the industry. But you’re right, it can be a double-edged sword. … There may come a time when my heart’s not in it but for now I’m proud to be “the Janis girl.” If they were saying, “Hey, aren’t you the Ashley Simpson girl?” I’d be a lot more worried.
BLADE: Is part of the reason the show’s been such a hit is that people simply crave hearing Janis sing and this is as close as it gets at least for a live experience?
DAVIES: Yeah, I think there is some of that. It can be pretty overwhelming at times. People still go see Big Brother (Joplin’s old band) in droves, especially in Europe. People are crying. She died 43 years ago and people are still throwing themselves at my feet. Sometimes I’m like, “Whoah, I don’t know how to handle that.” I think people just miss her so much, they’ll take her any way they can get her. Other people come in rather skeptical but I always say, that’s fine. Go ahead and come in skeptical because then the end up leaving very happy.