One Night With Janis Joplin is a crowd-pleasing biographical concert that brings its audience to its feet. It is a rousing evening filled with high-energy performances of the greatest works of the late Ms. Joplin interspersed with the music of the great ladies of American blues and jazz that influenced her style. It is a production that would be at home in the great tourist drawing towns of Las Vegas or Branson. However, if you are looking for insight into Janis Joplin's life and the inner demons that led to her death by overdose at the age of 27, One Night With Janis Joplin is probably not the show for you.
Arena Stage's Kreeger Theatre has been transformed into an intimate club reminiscent of the 1960's with lots of carpeting and mix-matched lamps strewn about. A band, heavy with brass is loud enough to give the audience a real sense of the electric atmosphere of a Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company session. The script conceived and written by director Randy Johnson with musical direction and arrangement by Len Rhodes tries to give insight into the influences in Janis Joplin's life. In that aim they have received the "full support of the estate of Janis Joplin & Jeffrey Jampol for JAM, Inc." Possibly that is the reason that this production ultimately feels slight. Ms. Joplin was notorious for her drinking, yet in this production the character only takes a few token swigs from a bottle of Southern Comfort. The dialogue provides transitions between the 24 songs performed during the evening, but one leaves this show roused by the musical performance, yet somehow feeling as if Ms. Joplin life remains unexamined with any depth, just a mournful sense that it ended too soon.
There are two incredible performances in this concert play. Sabrina Elayne Carten portrays the Blues Singer, the embodiment of every African American blues singer that Janis Joplin says influenced her singing style. Ms. Carten has incredible range which is well showcased whether singing the operatic tones of Gershwin's Summertime or the raise the rafters of Aretha Franklin in Spirit in the Dark. Mary Bridget Davies channels the vocal and physical qualities of Janis Joplin. She should having played her through several incarnations not only in this production, but also the tour of Love, Janis and with Janis' band Big Brother and the Holding Company. She is a performer with a lot of charisma and one wonders what she could accomplish if the dramatic material were on par with the musical material.
Despite anything that any critique might say about the merits of this work, the audience attending One Night With Janis Joplin will have a good time. Bear in mind the warning that the lighting effects may cause problems with those with sensitivities to strobe or pulse effects.
One Night With Janis Joplin is being performed in the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theatre through November 4, 2012. For tickets and other performance information please visit www. arena-stage.org.