JOPLIN: A ROCK AND ROLL NIGHT TO REMEMBER AT THE REP
Only one night and what an incredible night to spend with Janis Joplin A single evening in May when the Milwaukee Rep opened One Night With Janis Joplin, created, written and directed by Randy Johnson, in the Quadrracci Powerhouse Theater. People in the audience spoke about the unequaled spirit of Joplin: her soul, her gutsy voice, what she accomplished in such a short time. She was beat up, knocked down and Janis sang about how life really is, a spectacular original, yet to be matched. And The Rep delivered a sensational concert that captured the incomparable essence of Janis Joplin, a scene rarely experienced sitting in those plush seats.
On the stage, the queen of blues, rock and roll and soul were reincarnated for this mesmerizing concert. Where the audience reveled in the music, alternating between performances by Joplin’s muses Bessie Smith, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin in the guise of blues singer Sabrina Elayne Carten. Her commanding figure and powerful voice embodying the uniquely American musical genre.
As an equally stellar performer, Mary Bridget Davies donned those bell bottoms, velvet vests and studded boots in a complete personification of Joplin. Staring at photographs from other publications, and then the playbill, revealed even the production’s costumes designed by Jeff Cone were stitched with a remarkable resemblance to Joplin’s real life concert moments. When Davies represented an uncanny duplicate of the legendary personality.
To respond to these lifelike performances, to which three back up singers appeared as a Greek chorus of those famous 50's and 60's girl groups, the audience danced in their seats, echoed those gritty blues, especially to all the favorites “Stay With Me” and “Mercedes Benz,” or waved their fluorescent glo sticks. Where the emotion was immediate and spontaneous, passionate for the rock star the audience had locked in their memory, reliving what Janis knew all along, when she said; “The blues is just a bad woman feeling good.”
While Joplin defined that bad girl image, her “yet to be matched or rivaled” talent was unconventional in a time, the 60'’s, where mainstream culture decided the beatniks were farther out in their ideas than placing a man on the moon (accomplished by Neil Armstrong in July 1969). Acclaimed as one of the first female rock stars, Joplin was unbelievably insecure as a person and a performer her entire career, only until her accidental death at the age 27 in 1970. However, in these few years she carved out an outrageous life so her fans would admire her even more, clearing another outrageous path for future stars such as Madonna, Pink and Lady Gaga. Celebrities that followed glitzier versions of Joplin’s bohemian chic, even though Janis later adorned herself in satin and sequins.
The production relives these moments of Joplin’s insecurities and how she craved adulation from an audience, told through Davies’ narration and songs, alternating with her famous muses singing the blues. A double dose of amazing performances accompanied by a marvelous eight-piece band with set and lighting designs based on originals by Justin Townsend. Joplin also drew and painted to ease her restless spirit and so her art, placed larger than life as janis lived, appears on the screened backdrop behind her. A tender portrait of her younger sister Laura, which the performance speaks to her creating, displays Joplin's innate gift and sensitivity, her other persona.
Joplin's iconic wire rimmed rose glasses and feather boas dotted the Rep audience in tribute to the star, almost everyone completely immersed in the memory of the blues, Janis and those hippie days of the 1960’s. If anyone missed Joplin the first time around, in those previous decades, come to catch Davies recreate her phenomenal presence this spring. One audience member could be heard when they were on their feet in the final minutes of this one evening saying, "Please, please give me another night with Joplin. So I can rock all the way to heaven with Janis."
The Milwaukee Rep presents One Night With Janis Joplin at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater in the Patty and Jay Baker Theater Complex through June 2. To see this mesmerizing production, please call for tickets and performance times at 414.224.9490 or click the Rep link to the left of the page. by Peggy Sue Dunigan