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.
Spirit Creek the brainchild of local musician Doug Shea, was a mainstay in the local and even national music scene for the better part of a decade. Read more »