A crossover between tribute concert and musical theater, A Night with Janis Joplin at the Ordway is a unique, mesmerizing performance. Using the concert format as a source to tell Joplin’s story, this show uses conversations to the audience between songs (some of my favorite parts of concerts) and Joplin’s music and music of those who influenced her to convey her presence as an artist. Mary Bridget Davies makes a stunning Janis and blows the audience away with her vocals. Hitting the robust growl perfectly, her voice is a perfect impression of Joplin’s skill and timbre.
Also taking stage are various actresses playing the parts of Joplin’s influencers – Bessie Smith and Odetta (Cicily Daniels), Etta James (Tawny Dolley), Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone (Q. Smith), and a woman known as Blues Singer (Jennifer Leigh Warren). In what feels like a dream concert inside Janis’ mind, she interacts with the women who made music one of the most important parts of her life and taught her about the blues. The concert itself is an exploration of what the blues is and what it means to Janis.
Adding incredible solos and support to this work is the band, who not only personify the era by their dress and physicality, but also switch between genres to express the mood of the blues and personality of Joplin’s influencers. The band, directed by Mark Berman, acts as much as they perform the music and provide more than just accompaniment. The lighting design of the show is also brilliant, creating the mood of the 60s in a concert environment along with projections behind the stage to add to Joplin’s story.
Though the show is more concert than musical theater story, there were moments I wish the piece had stayed in longer – Joplin’s grappling with a world that kills blues artists (in this instance, Bessie Smith, who I had just happened to read about before seeing the show and learned she died after a car accident because the hospital she was taken to refused to treat her due to her race), Joplin’s wanting to be like Zelda Fitzgerald but to not end up with her fate, her struggles with how being with a man has never been as good as the feeling she gets being front of an audience, and her conflict between wanting to be in a relationship but not wanting to put her musical ambition and her life on the road aside for it. The show poignantly touches on all of these, but I would have loved more thoughts from Janis on them, to hold to those conflicts a little longer. However, much of the music does that work as well, and we do experience those moments throughout her powerful, bluesy songs.
Though Joplin’s death is hinted at, it never is mentioned in the show. Instead, it focus on her life and her legacy and gives a possible answer, as the Ordway’s website asks, “what might have been” had Joplin lived beyond age 27. It works with how we remember people and how we tell their story and, instead of making it about Janis’ death, it makes it about her life. I’ve never seen a show get standing ovations throughout the show, but this one got them several times. It’s a lot of fun and a great tribute to an incredible artist.
A Night with Janis Joplin is written and directed by Randy Johnson. It is playing now through April 3rd at the Ordway Center of Performing Arts in St. Paul. Ticket information and prices can be found on the Ordway’s website.