A Night With Janis Joplin
Reviewed by Myron Meisel
The Pasadena Playhouse
Through August 16
When our daughters were still young, yet old enough, we determined to take them on their first trip abroad to Europe. There was some protest: Why travel to Venice, when they could go to the Venetian in Las Vegas, where their grandparents lived? We responded they knew well from personal experience the New York New York Hotel in Vegas certainly wasn’t a substitute for Manhattan, let alone Brooklyn, home of their other grandparents.
Their first morning in a foreign country we were touring St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, when the younger one, then 12, ushered me aside to inquire hushedly: “Is this the real thing, or an imitation?” Oh yes, my darling, it is indeed the real thing.
These were memories occasioned by the return of the hit musical show A Night with Janis Joplin to the Pasadena Playhouse, from which it had moved to Broadway and garnered a Tony nomination for star Mary Bridget Davies. They raised nagging and possibly unanswerable questions about issues of authenticity, simulation and maintenance of tradition.
Though this was my first encounter with the piece, it had continued to develop after the initial Pasadena run before opening on Broadway, and this version reflects that ultimate incarnation. Most meaningfully, the Blues Singer, originally performed by one woman, is now divided among four contrasting singers who additionally incarnate Joplin influences from Bessie Smith to Etta James, Odetta, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin.
All these powerful singers, including Davies, suggest their immortal forebears with carefully selected imitative inflections, without resorting either to parody or impersonation. Similarly, the musical arrangements by Len Rose are superficially evocative while subtly updated and, frankly, somewhat scrubbed clean. Unlike End of the Rainbow, which constructed a drama about the decline of Judy Garland, here there is only a ghost Janis hosting her own revue comprised of pearls on a string threaded by reminiscence and “and then I sang. . .”
Readers ought to realize that critics are as prone to distractions and funks as any other member of the audience, and their faculties, however mustered for their own performance that conjures up their writing, can wax and wane. I happened to see five musical shows in the space of the week, all set to familiar, and mostly good, songs, even as the respective productions varied in interest. I must confess to having been unreasonably prone to disengage, compounded no doubt by the unaccustomed humidity.
Accordingly, while A Night with Janis Joplin was on its own terms unquestionably a rousing, imaginary concert, I must admit to unfairly subjecting it to a double bind: alternately annoyed by its deviance (and pretense) of authenticity and equally unnerved by the many sweet spots of enthusiastic pleasures it could elicit, some nostalgic, other just showbiz savvy.
Creator, writer and director Randy Johnson has reduced the endeavor to its most commercially broad gestures while remaining functionally close enough to suggestions of the genuine article that the experience doesn’t feel fraudulent. (He’s got a long track record of success in the sub-genre, ranging from Always, Patsy Cline to Conway Twitty, Elvis, Louis Prima and even Bolton Sings Sinatra, Mike Tyson’s solo show and Pope Benedict’s visit to New York.)
Indeed, with even mild susceptibility, the full-throated singers, slick band with tarted-up brass and reeds, and Davies’ surpassing rapport with the audience all contribute to a good-time boogie vibe that surmounts the waxworks risk, socking sock across a rousing communal camaraderie with something vaguely redolent of how blues and soul bled discernibly into white folks’ rock.
In short, just because I had a curmudgeonly night and am so irretrievably absorbed in this music at its roots and sources that I cannot abstain from nits and picks, doesn’t mean that the more easily gratified cannot have themselves a legitimately Broadway/Las Vegas brand experience.
The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through August 16, http://pasadenaplayhouse.org