If any of you happened to be in the Times Square area on the night of Saturday, December 14th, 2013, you may have heard some blood-curdling screams emanating from the Lyceum Theatre. But it wasn't coming from Mary Bridget Davies, now appearing at that august venue in the title role of A Night With Janis Joplin. No those wails of pain were coming from me as I sat in agony enduring the ear-splitting volume of the sound system.
Are baby boomers that deaf?
Yeah, my main problem with A Night With Janis Joplin had to do with sheer decibel level, but there's a lot more that's wrong with the show, at least from a musical-theater perspective. A Night With Janis Joplin amounts to, at least for me, an excruciating scream-fest without any compensatory human drama or theatrical invention.
The show is written and directed by one Randy Johnson, a man who appears to specialize in tribute shows and Vegas acts. And that's pretty much what we get with A Night With Janis Joplin: a superficial celebration of a music icon that belongs in Las Vegas or London or any other place that has a higher tolerance for schlock.
A Night With Janis Joplin essentially comprises a concert of Joplin's greatest hits, combined with a series of cameo appearances by some of Joplin's supposed musical influences, including Etta James, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Odetta, and Bessie Smith. (Ironically, Nina Simone comes off far better in the otherwise execrable Soul Doctor from earlier earlier this season.) Along the way, we get a rather cursory history of Joplin's growing interest in performing and with singing the blues.
The whole enterprise strikes me as a tremendous missed opportunity. I mean, we're talking about a fascinating and tortured woman here. Surely there was more drama to mine in Joplin's story than simply "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues." I'm certainly no expert when it comes to Janis Joplin, but I can't imagine that anyone who dies at the age of 27 of a heroin overdose was particularly happy. Writer Johnson seems uninterested in plumbing the depths of Joplin's tortured soul, content instead to mold a superficial hagiography. All we really learn about Joplin here is that she loved singing the blues and listening to black women singing. Johnson seems content to gloss over Joplin's pain with a series of platitudes: "Nobody feels the blues like a woman," and "When I'm singing it's the only time I don't feel lonely" being two notable examples.
As far as I can tell, Mary Bridget Davies gives a pretty spot-on impersonation of Janis Joplin, in particular in capturing her plaintive wail and ferocious rasp. The female singing ensemble is likewise impeccable. So there's not lack of talent on display. But the show has "fans only" written all over it, although I will admit that my ears did prick up for "Piece of My Heart" and "Me and Bobby McGee." The act one finale with Joplin making a guest appearance at an Aretha Franklin concert was pretty kick-ass. (I did feel the need to resist the performers' exhortations to the audience to stand up and get into the music. Yeah, ain't gonna happen, folks.)
I must say that many audience members were clearly having a ball traveling back in time, albeit in a non-threatening fashion: no pesky truths to sully their admiration. These people were mostly a few years my senior (I'm a very late boomer or a very early Gen-X-er, depending on whose definition you go by) and thus more of Joplin's time than I. Clearly, there's an audience for this show, although I'm not exactly sure how big that audience is. (The show played to about 2/3 capacity even during Christmas week, traditionally one of the two busiest periods of the year for Broadway, the other being Thanksgiving weekend.)
But it ain't good theater, people. Even showbiz tribute shows can manage to muster some sense of drama and stagecraft, for instance, Jersey Boys. A Night With Janis Joplin amounts to a reasonably slick and efficient tribute concert along the lines of Rain or Let It Be. It's fine for those who hope to recapture, however vicariously, the spark of Joplin's genius, but it never crosses over into compelling theater. It never even comes close.