One Night With Janis

Pasadena Playhouse
Pasadena, CA

Review by Lori Shube
Photos by Anjani Lynn White

Created, written, and directed by Randy Johnson (Elvis The Concert), One Night With Janis fetes the origins and highlights of the artist's life at the Pasadena Playhouse. Opening night (March 17) became a rollicking St. Patrick's Day party with live music and street vendors, replete with an art gallery showing of Janis paraphernalia. We had plenty of room, thanks to the cordoned-off street, to make merry all around the fabulous psychedelically painted 1965 Porsche that Janis bought for $3,500 in 1968.

If you're looking for Room 105, you won't find it here. This is not the tawdry portrayal of Janis's afflictions — it's a downright celebration of the icon's work. Some previous reviews of the musical bemoaned the "glossing over" of Joplin's myriad problems or quirks. Even at the press party afterward, some attendees couldn't help bringing up the fact that this version of Janis's story didn't...delve enough. But for the rest of us, it was an authentic story — simultaneously serious and joyful; proud and playful.

Mary Bridget Davies brings Janis back to life — physically and emotionally through her chuckles, the swaggers, the twinkling in her eye (which you can see from your seat), the genuine duds, quips from actual letters, and of course, the gravelly-wailing-smoky oh-so-achy voice. Tiny or robust, radiant or pensive, musing aloud or in song, Davies gets it right.

"One Night" begins with memories of the Joplin household: Saturday morning chores with the whole family belting out Broadway tunes. Her fearlessness must have originated there. On the stage, Janis towers above an assortment of small, medium, and teeny lamps that litter the floor in a wink to Alice in Wonderland...only in Haight-Ashbury style.

Yards and yards of gauze studded with firefly lights twirl to form a frame around the set, one that changes colors with the lighting for each song — resulting in a completed rainbow by the end of the musical. For me, the progression of colors and songs throughout the program underscored the arc of Janis's mindset from a free-spirited and gregarious young girl to wary and lonely young woman just before her death.

Through the first act, Janis recalls the blues pioneers that "raised" her: Etta James, Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, Odetta, and Aretha... Sabrina Elayne Carten, called simply the "Blues Singer," multitasks. Portraying them all, she thrills us, igniting each song with a voice that alternates between sublime, operatic, rumbling, and booming. Many have called Carten "Mind-blowing." I agree. Carten starts out by conjuring Leontyne Price as she coos “Summertime” from Porgy & Bess. When Janis repeats the number, it's as if we're actually witnessing the formation of her intense determination to live by the blues.

Then there's the trio of backup singers or Joplinaires (Tricia Kelly, Shay Saint-Victor, and Kimberly Yarbrough), whose delightful fluidity and sound light up the stage. The eight-piece band — including Stephen Flakus (guitar), Patrick Harry (bass), Tyler Evans (keyboards), Mitch Wilson (drums), David Milne (saxophone), Lee Thornburg (trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone), Pete Disiena (trumpet), and Ross Seligman (bandleader, guitar) — brings it with an impeccable performance and great energy.

I see the appreciation all around me — from broad smiles to seat wiggling, to stand-up heartfelt singing along. Janis and the "Blues Singer" (Carten) guide us through the beloved hits until the end of the second act — proverbial and true — when we get a surprise treat. It's a Jerry Ragovoy ("Piece Of My Heart") tune called "I'm Gonna Rock My Way To Heaven," that Janis would have recorded had she left the Landmark Hotel's Room 105 alive.

If you’re in the Los Angeles area, One Night with Janis Joplin plays Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 4:00 and 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00 p.m. through April 21st (2013) at the historic Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA.

Purchase tickets at http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org or by calling (626) 356-7529.

You can also see the Janis Joplin’s Porsche on display through May 17th at the GRAMMY Museum (http://www.grammymuseum.org), 800 W. Olympic Blvd., Suite A245, Los Angeles, CA.

 

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