Another out of site high point to this musical is the richly talented eight-member band under the direction of Ross Seligman. This ensemble is so comfortable with the music and with each other that when it’s time for the brass section to move from side to side in unison, these guys do it instinctually. Their sound is big and explosive.
Adding more flourish to the production are the performances of Taprena Michelle Augustine, De’Adre Aziza (a Tony Award nominee for Passing Strange), Allison Blackwell, and Nikki Kimbrough as such superstars as Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Odetta, Aretha Franklin and Etta James. Allison Blackwell’s Franklin is flawless as she takes the audience to task, waving her hankie at them for their lackluster response when she calls on them to participate. As Simone, Aziza makes the same smart choice as Amber Iman did playing Simone in this season’s short-lived Soul Doctor. She doesn’t try to exactly replicate Simone’s sound but chooses to recreate the sense of Simone’s mystique using her own rich voice.
The book by Randy Johnson – who also directs – is simply an uncomfortable and awkward device to get from one song to another. We see tid-bits, reminiscence but nothing terribly dramatic and certainly nothing of Joplin’s tragic end. We hear of her Saturday house-cleaning chores with her sister and brother. We learn that the first band she joined was Waller Creek Boys and then ultimately Big Brother and the Holding Company. We get a look at Joplin’s artwork as they appear as large projections behind her. These clumsy segues are easily forgotten once the musicians pick up their instruments and these ladies make their appearance.
The scenic and lighting design by Justin Townsend creates a perfect rock-concert environ. The proscenium is surrounded by light-sabre like pipes that constantly change color. At the end of each sabre, a large transparent light bulb. The only slight problem with Townsend’s lighting design is that it calls on things like LED’s and VeraLights (lights that move and change colors by computer program) that didn’t exist when Joplin was performing.
To director Johnson’s credit, he has sequenced the numbers in the musical so that they build to a thundering peak. By the time we reach “Ball and Chain” and “Me and Bobby McGee,” the roof is ready to explode off the theatre. This production marks Davies’ Broadway debut. Mark my words, we will see much more of this talented performer.
A Night with Janis Joplin delivers exactly what its title promises, a night with Janis Joplin. For added measure, she’s brought along a few other amazing ladies who sing the blues. As Joplin says “no one feels the blues like a woman.”