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Review: Lady wails in soulful ‘Janis Joplin’ show

October 11, 2013

NEW YORK (AP) — Legendary blues and soul singer Janis Joplin was an astounding force of nature onstage and off. A new concert musical on Broadway provides a rockin’ good time while imaginatively evoking her impassioned, thrilling talent.

Randy Johnson wrote and directed the tribute, “A Night With Janis Joplin.” Featuring a powerful performance by Mary Bridget Davies as Joplin alongside a quartet of extremely talented singers, the loud, colorful, ’60s-saturated spectacle opened Thursday night at the Lyceum Theatre.

Soulful and genuine, Davies gives a lively, energetic performance. She captures much of the exuberance and uniquely raspy wailing that made Joplin a musical legend, though she lacks Joplin’s raw onstage sexuality and brash, raunchy persona. No stranger to the role, Davies has sung as Janis for years, including in this show regionally for the past year.

The onstage eight-member band, led by music director Ross Seligman as the sexy lead guitarist, performs hard-driving arrangements of Joplin hits including “Down on Me,” ″Piece of My Heart,” ″Mercedes Benz” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” The musicians also invoke the spirit of Big Brother and the Holding Company, the funky, psychedelic electric blues-rock group that helped propel Joplin to stardom in 1967.

Johnson’s book sentimentalizes Joplin, whitewashing her hard-drinking, drug-fueled lifestyle and focusing instead on her enthusiasm and passion for her music. Between numbers, Davies’ Joplin muses extensively about the nature of the blues and blues music, and reminisces about growing up with her family in Texas.

More seminal to the show are the highlights she shares about her rise to fame and the music legends that influenced her, although her silent mouthing of their lyrics can be distracting. There’s no mention of the accidental heroin overdose that killed Joplin at age 27.

Taprena Michelle Augustine, De’Adre Aziza, Allison Blackwell and Nikki Kimbrough perform as backup singers “The Joplinaires.” With grace and elegance, they also represent late 1950s “girl groups” and some iconic blues singers, dramatically performing parts of signature numbers by the likes of Etta James, Odetta, Nina Simone, Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin on a platform above the stage.

In turn, Davies performs Joplin’s earthier interpretations of these hits, showing how she made them her own, such as an invigorating “Tell Mama” (with Kimbrough stunning as Etta James) and a mournful, wailing, primal version of “Summertime.”

With dynamic use of lighting, projections, sound design and the choreography of Patricia Wilcox, Johnson creates a high-caliber spectacle around the compelling story of a uniquely talented singer-songwriter who embodied her generation’s passionate attitudes.

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