There is an explosive voice ringing nightly from Broadway’s Lyceum theatre. Laced with grit and gravel, Mary Bridget Davies is shaking the rafters as the iconic Queen of Rock, Janis Joplin. Unfortunately, she’s doing it at a decibel level which will wake the dead and make you wish the ushers had handed you earplugs with your playbill. She’s also doing it in a limp, seemingly endless show that offers no real insight into the diva of rock n’ roll and blues.
“A Night with Janis Joplin” sounds like an exciting premise. After all, this small town girl from Texas bucked the system, marched to the beat of her own drum, and didn’t give a damn about what anyone thought of her. With chart topping hits like, “Piece of My Heart”, “Me and Bobby McGee”, “Cry Baby”, and “Down on Me”, she revolutionized a new soulful sound that had yet been heard by female artists. Joplin blazed a trail and like Marilyn Monroe, her “candle burned out long before her legend ever did”. She died from a heroin overdose at the premature age of 27.
There would be a great deal to find out about our leading lady. Certainly she might be able to regale us with fascinating stories and tidbits from her life. Instead, all we learn is that Janis “dug the blues, man”, and proceeds to take two hours to present us with her musical influences. As each one is mentioned (Odetta, Etta James, Nina Simone, and Aretha Franklin), they suddenly appear and sing their songs that later, Joplin covers herself. While the hugely talented cast embodies each performer with genuine plausibility, the gimmick tires quickly. Other than admiration, there is little connection between Joplin and her icons. Smash hit songs always have a backstory of how they were written, but in this piece, the evolution of her famous compositions is glossed over.
Earlier this season Broadway gave us the one woman vehicle “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers”. Mengers was a super-agent in 1970s Hollywood who represented some of the biggest names at the time. While not a musical, it offered delicious tales from Mengers’ life, her struggle to power, and her dishy revelations about the Hollywood elite. By the end of the show, you came away feeling as though you knew this woman personally. “A Night with Janis Joplin” offers no such observations or intimacy.
Justin Townsend’s set, while mostly practical, is curiously adorned with vintage table lamps. Was there a close-out sale at Home Depot? Did the local thrift shop go out of business? Did Janis Joplin have a fascination with luminescence? The reasoning is inexplicable, but when these are the questions posed in your mind during a theatrical presentation, it might be time to up the ante on content. Visually, the show is blinding—literally. During every high energy number, the audience is assaulted with flashing lights comparable to a police raid. This, in addition to the piercing din coming from the sound system. There is a fine balance between attending a faux rock concert and getting bushwhacked by excessive stimuli.
There are phenomenal performances being turned out here. But like a broken winged sparrow, they are stifled by the muddy material they must lumber through. Shortly into act two, Joplin states, “It’s the want of something that gives you the blues, man.” It sure is, Janis. Your audience has a bad case of them. And what we want is a more cohesive show.
“A Night with Janis Joplin” On Broadway at the Lyceum theatre 149 West 45th Street (between Broadway and 6th ave.)_ Tickets are available at the box office, online: https://www.telecharge.com/Broadway/A-Night-with-Janis-Joplin/Overview, or by phone: 1-800-447-7400.