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Forty years ago, rock musicians encroached on theater’s terrain by developing rock opera. Theater is notoriously slow on the uptake, but give it credit: In One Night With Janis Joplin, which features a pitch-perfect Joplin impersonation by Mary Bridget Davies, it makes a credible foray into tribute-band territory.
Not into dramatic territory, let’s note. Writer-director Randy Johnson, having been given access to Joplin’s archives, has repaid that indulgence by crafting a sunny, cheerful, annotated concert, not anything resembling a full-on portrait of the self-described “white chick singin’ the blues.” Between songs, Davies’ Joplin is allowed to ramble on about how she was seduced by the musical stylings of Odetta and Nina Simone, but not to so much as reference her affairs with Southern Comfort and heroin—more likely sources of the ache in that famous whiskey rasp of hers. Style over substance abuse—a sure cure for any chance the evening might have theatrical resonance—is perhaps what you’d expect from the creator of Elvis: The Concert, described in Johnson’s program bio as “the most successful rock tour performed by a deceased artist.”
Still, as a 24-song concert, One Night is decently rousing, starting with an opening set that lets the evening’s avatar for the Queen of Psychedelic Soul save her voice—Davies always nails the wails even when she seems to be holding back a bit—by alternating songs with the singers who influenced her. A formidable Sabrina Elayne Carten stands in for those spiritual mentors, offering everything from an operatic “Summertime” to a smoky Bessie Smith impersonation. Act 1 climaxes when Carten, persuasively channeling that other Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, summons Davies’ Joplin to join her for “Spirit in the Dark,” a nicely contrived if patently artificial number (they bring the audience to its feet by, um, asking it to stand) that sends the boomer crowd out for cocktails on a high. Act 2 is a more straightforward Joplin concert, culminating in a “Ball and Chain” in which Davies is finally singing flat-out, the rasp turning guttural and acquiring a roughness that suggests the wear and tear of a road tour.
Technical details are up to snuff in Arena’s joint production with the Cleveland Playhouse, the two lead singers backed by a snappy vocal trio and a chill—and, judging from their significantly less hirsute program photos, seriously bewigged—backup band. Designer Justin Townsend has wreathed the stage in billowing grey fabric (the pot smoke that would’ve surrounded the real Joplin?) while projecting images on a back wall of glass panels that could double as Saturday Night Fever’s dance floor. The effect may be ersatz—a simulacrum lacking the relentless, feverish anarchy Joplin radiated in performance—but then, the production isn’t going for depth. It just wants to recapture the singer’s energy for what a program note calls “an authentic rock ’n’ roll show.” Nostalgia’s just another word for nothing left to lose.