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Streaming Service BroadwayHD Brings Us 'A Night With Janis Joplin'
January 25, 2019  | By David Hinckley
 

The tragic mystique of Janis Joplin has considerably outstripped the success she enjoyed back when she was with us.

Almost half a century after she died, the bio-musical A Night With Janis Joplin brought her bluesy music and her haunted life story on a theater stage, winning a Tony nomination for its star Mary Bridget Davies.

It’s not quite the same as having seen the real Joplin, for several reasons, but it gives a decent flavor. Davies, who has sung Joplin material for years, captures her raw, guttural voice well enough that she takes a couple of breaks during the performance to let her vocal cords regroup.

While the Broadway run has ended, the streaming service BroadwayHD now is making that show available to home audiences, joining the several hundred other stage performances BroadwayHD previously offered.

You won’t find Hamilton there, but you can find Cats, Company, Falsettos, Les Miz, Gypsy and a bunch of other faves, taped at various locations around the country.

A Night With Janis Joplin was taped in Los Angeles last October, in one of its final performances. Davies and the other featured singers, who include Aurianna Angelique, Ashley Támar Davis, Tawny Dolley, Paige McNamara, and Jennifer Leigh Warren, are in good voice.

As the title would suggest, the show includes a bunch of quasi-autobiographical riffs and ruminations. While they probably aren’t inaccurate, they don’t say much that isn’t already packed into Joplin’s songs.

Joplin’s material during her short and sometimes erratic recording career tended toward hurt-woman songs, dwelling extensively on the pain and torment of love.

“Ball and Chain” became one of her signatures, alongside the radio hit “Piece of My Heart.” Both fall squarely in the pain-and-torment school, and both are performed in this show. As with several other well-known tunes, including Joplin’s reimagining of “Cry Baby,” Davies wrings out every anguished note.

The performances are good enough that we don’t really need the spoken parts about how hard it is to find a good man.

Presumably, the spoken parts, including plenty of “you know what I’m talking about, girl” asides, are what make it a show rather than a tribute concert. Still, there’s no way around the fact that the music is the reason the show exists.

Because Joplin’s music was so heavily influenced by the blues, A Night With Janis Joplin makes some nods to the history of women in blues. Musically, that history is triumphant. Off the stage, it was a lot less so, and Joplin unhappily joined that tradition.

By all accounts her life was far more complicated than any stage production is likely to capture, so A Night With Janis Joplin focuses on the most familiar part: the tragedy, suggesting she spent her relatively short life seeking love and affection that always seemed to elude her.

In the process, she inevitably comes off as something of a victim, and in that sense, the production reinforces the most widely circulated Joplin mythology.

It also suggests her relative handful of songs, which included “Summertime,” “(Lord Won’t You Buy Me A) Mercedes Benz” and “Me and Bobby McGee,” comprised a complete musical statement.

In that regard, it would be interesting to know what she would have sung had she lived past 27 – and what that would have said about how she saw herself.  

In any case, Joplin popularized a kind of singing and delivered some songs you won’t hear from today’s biggest female pop singers. For that alone, A Night With Janis Joplin is a valuable evening.

 
 
 
 
 
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