When Mary Bridget Davies first takes the stage as the title character in One Night with Janis Joplin at Arena Stage, the audience is almost immediately transported back to the 1960s and present for a rock concert by the legendary singer. Davies' interpretation is dead-on, having perfected the swagger and spirit of Joplin as she delivers no-holds-barred vocal fire through one classic song after another.
Created, written, and directed by Randy Johnson, the play focuses on one random night in Joplin's concert schedule, with Davies throwing in small biographical tidbits about Joplin's life throughout. At various points, the singer goes on to talk about key moments of her life, such as listening to Porgy and Bess as a kid, doing art, and mourning the burial of Bessie Smith in an unmarked grave.
And while the show does adhere slightly to the biomusical format, it encourages concert-like behavior like catcalls and hoots and hollers. By the time Davies sings "Piece of My Heart" midway through the first act -- capturing every last raspy note that Joplin herself would hit -- the crowd is on its feet.
While the piece sounds like a solo show, that's far from the case. In addition to three harmony-rich female backup singers, Laura Carbonell, Alison Cusano and Shinnerrie Jackson, and an eight-piece band that remains omnipresent as any rock musicians would in a live concert, Sabrina Elayne Carten embodies everyone from Aretha Franklin to Bessie Smith to Etta James. Her powerhouse voice is equally impressive as Davies, and her version of Franklin's "Spirit in the Dark" brought down the house at the end of the first act.
Although the set may seem simplistic at first glance—a big '60s-era rug with two dozen lamps with room for the band in back—set and lighting designer Justin Townsend accomplishes so much with psychedelic colors and strobe lights that the set comes alive. A billboard-sized upper tier projects images throughout the play and the platform is used with great effect to bring on the Shirelles (played by the backup singers) in a memorable shadowy silhouette.
Costume designer Jeff Cone captures the essence of the era well, having Davies dress in beads and velvet bell-bottoms and outfitting Carten differently every time she transforms into each new singer.
Although the play doesn't deal with Joplin's death head-on, when the singer waxes poetic about the song, "I'm Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven," it's understood that Joplin is saying goodbye. But not before one last all-out encore that will have the entire audience singing along.
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