Don't miss the chance to spend one night with Janis Joplin

tony worthy performances at Milwaukee Rep now through June 2nd

(L to R) Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin and Sabrina Elayne Carten as Blues Singer in the Cleveland Play House production of One Night with Janis Joplin written and directed by Randy Johnson, which comes to Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater September 28-November 4, 2012. Photo by Janet Macoska.

Tools

by Michele McCormack

tony worthy performances at the Milwaukee Rep now through June 2nd

MILWAUKEE -- I have never taken off my objective reporter's hat before. But having seen "One Night With Janis Joplin" at the Milwaukee Rep,  I had to speak up as a Milwaukean and a theater lover.

I became aware of the stage play because I was assigned to interview Joplin's brother and sister before the show opened.

Naturally I was skeptical. How could anyone attempt to bring Janis Joplin on stage now when the late Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was so immensely and uniquely talented?

As Laura and Michael Joplin explained it to me, their aim was to capture the essence of Janis.

I was not prepared for what I witnessed during the Sunday matinee on Mother's Day.

Within 40 seconds of Mary Bridget Davies taking the stage, I cried. Her goal may not have been to impersonate the "queen of rock and roll," but I can best equate it to a psychic medium allowing Joplin to inhabit her body for 2 hours and 15 minutes.

For an actor  to so selflessly allow another to inhabit their vessel was  truly awe inspiring.

Davies delivers on favorites like "Summertime" and " Piece of My Heart."  For anyone who has watched the film clips of the 60's icon at Monterey, you'd be hard pressed to find Davies' renditions out of step.  But for me the most touching moment came when she didn't dance, but sat on a stairwell recalling precious moments of childhood in Port Arthur, Texas,   where the seeds of greatness and love of music were first sewn.

If you close your eyes while Davies weaves in and out of stories from the road,  you might have thought it was Janis on the Dick Cavett show.

It is the stuff of tony award winning performances.

Creator Randy Johnson has also assembled a long overdue tribute to the African American women of blues. Bessie Smith, Etta James, Nina Simone, all of whom heavily influenced Joplin, make their presence known in the sole performer of Kimberly Yarbrough on the day I caught the Sunday matinee.

Yarbrough, like Davies, has the unenviable task of being compared to singers of unique and incomparable skill. She manages to bring us back yet bring something of her own to a devastatingly challenging list of songs. Her shining moment has to be when she takes on the queen of them all; Aretha Franklin in the invigorating "Spirit in the Dark."

The voice never faltered, incredible stamina, again something of which Broadway aficionados should take note.

Be sure to give some attention and love to the band which is a constant throughout in keeping the energy going. UW Milwaukee grad Greg Garcia on trumpet and Blair Bielawaski on saxophone who holds a BA in Music Education from Carroll University in Waukesha.

The second act is one in your face, knockout performance after the other. There is not as much storytelling. I chose to interpret that as being reflective of Joplin's final years with the  frantic pace of fame and touring.

If you're looking for some explanation or examination of her substance abuse, you won't find it here.

There is no attempt to bring understanding or resolution about why Joplin was gone at the tender age of 27 from a drug overdose,  just as her triumphant "Pearl" album was set for release.

As Michael and Laura explained to me, their grieving process is long over for them. They personally are not searching for blame.

They suggest the same for Joplin fans and want instead the show to be a celebration of the force of nature she was when she was with us.

What the second act leaves out in terms of dialogue it delivers in what to me could easily go down as one of these most difficult scenes  of modern American theater.

Again, Davies triumphs in "Ball and Chain."

Truth be told, I couldn't take my eyes off Davies, and I think I'll have to go back to catch all the images that accompany the story telling and singing.

Projection and video designer Darrel Maloney along with set and lighting designer  Justin Townsend give us flashes of Joplin's own artwork, photos of her as a child that I've never seen, and landscape shots that evoke perhaps what was going through her mind when inspiration came for a song she wrote herself.

This technique was highly effective in demonstrating the birth of   "Down on Me," another one of  my favorites. Although, "Mercedes Benz"  and "Bye Bye Baby" were the crowd favorites.

One note to costume designer Jeff Cone, could you please sell that black outfit Joplin (excuse me Davies) wears in the second act in the gift shop?

The Rep's intimate setting is perfect for the show, although  Davies and Yarbrough have enough talent to fill a much larger venue.

I don't know if it's because you're so close to the action, but I actually felt the voices of Davies and Yarbrough move through me. Rather than just hearing them.

Which brings me to my final thought, what a brave and extremely satisfying risk for Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements who made "One Night With Janis Joplin" a late add to the season.

And,  as always, credit is due to UPAF,  the United Performing Arts Fund, for making sure this quality of theatrical production is available to Milwaukee audiences.

I've attached the raw interview I did with Laura and Michael Joplin during their stay here in Milwaukee.

"One Night With Janis Joplin" is in Milwaukee through June 2nd.

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