‘A Night with Janis Joplin.’ Mary Bridget Davies (center) stars as iconic blues singer, Janis Joplin, here performing her hit, “Me and Bobby McGee” joined by the iconic women who mentored her, currently playing at the Pasadena Playhouse. Photo: Joan Marcus.
*Extended through August 23rd!
Don’t get it twisted. The Tony nominated “A Night With Janis Joplin” currently playing at the Pasadena Playhouse, definitely includes her besties; the iconic African American women who nudged her along and inspired (in her own words): “a white girl to sing the blues.”
With mentors like Odetta, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Bessie Smith and Nina Simone, all portrayed in the production, its no small wonder Janis Joplin became known for her ability to reach down deep and find the soul of a song, then make it all her own.
Nobody did it like Janis. Nobody.
Recognized as the First Queen of Rock N Roll, her almost immediate meteoric rise to the top in 1967 was upstaged only by her untimely death three years later.
A Night With Janis Joplin is a musical journey that gives us a peek into the life, persona and undeniable talent of the ultimate hippie with the unmistakable voice that spit raw, unrefined emotion all centered around the San Francisco counter-culture in the late 1960s.
There are plenty of outstanding moments in this close to 2-hour musical. And the Joplinaires, the women who do double duty not only as backup singers to Joplin, but as Aretha, Odetta, Bessie, Etta and Nina, come out with the energetic Big Brother and the Holding Company song, “Combination of the Two” before Janis (Mary Bridget Davies) and Etta James (Jenelle Lynn Randall) came out to duet with “Tell Mama.”
Did you know that Janis Joplin once did a duet with Aretha Franklin?
I didn’t either. But you get to see it happen in this production.
An original play written, conceived and directed by Randy Johnson , who got all of his information on Janis from the woman herself–through personal diaries, letters, and other artifacts provided by her family–the production returns to the Pasadena Playhouse, where it sold out audiences in 2013; and now comes back after visiting several states and a stint on Broadway. To date it has received a total of 38 awards and/or nominations for ‘Excellence in Theater’ including a Tony, theater’s highest award!
The production is a special treat for those of us who were fully engaged in the Joplin-era. Like this writer, who although barely old enough to enter a club Joplin was performing in, was fascinated and positively transfixed by this plain-looking, yet totally electrifying white woman who could wrap her emotions around a song in a way that made you hurt.
Voted “The ugliest man on campus” by a bunch of cruel ass frat boys at the University of Texas, Joplin was a tough woman but a tragic figure. An unpopular misfit in school, she was a smart activist-type thinker and even wrote for the school paper and became an accomplished artist. She had few friends and would often speak in interviews of being ridiculed. Born into a comfortable, middle-class family with three children (her, her sister Laura, and brother Michael) she never wanted to follow the path her parents laid out for her, and immediately found her happy place when music entered her life.
(L-R) Yvette Cason, Jenelle Lynn Randall, Sylvia MacCalla and Sharon Catherine Brown. Photo: Earl Gibson III.
The show is an interesting combination of background tidbits and music. Janis often tells us the story behind a certain song or way of thinking; and attributes much to her soul sisters.
We get to hear Odetta (Sylvia MacCalla) sing “Down on Me” first and then Janis’ rendition. The same happens with the poignant “Summertime,” sung beautifully from high upstage by Randall, in the character of blues woman.
And Janis, all the while sitting on the side of the stage; sucking it all in and groovin’ right along–with her favorite bottle of bourbon–rises and literally s-c-r-e-a-m-s to a slow yet building crescendo, “Summertime”…and then goes into the song.
Mary Bridget Davies is a sight to behold as the singer. And fans of the singer (I was sitting next to a man who saw Janis on several occasions, including Woodstock, and a drunken man behind me who was obviously enjoying the show because he called out his favorite tunes…often), will tell you she definitely captures the essence of the star in all of the right places. Including her own rendition of a scat.
Upon leaving the theater I heard an African American woman say, “Wow! She can really sing. But that must hurt!” Speaking obviously of the raspy, but strong tone of Joplin’s voice over an extended period of time.
“I think one of the rarities of this show is that its a really tight knit group of people that really care about each other,” director Randy Johnson said in an interview with EURweb‘s DeBorah B. Pryor. Johnson, whose work has been seen at The Apollo Theater in Harlem, Carnegie Hall, as well as on-and-off Broadway, seems to have a penchant and a passion for writing biographical type musicals. He shares how it was working with the all-female cast.
“They just had a fire about them! Each with their own strengths and their own personalities and that’s what the show calls for. There is no weak link in the show. Everybody is a star in their own right and to be onstage with Janis Joplin you have to be strong,” he says.
For the role of Janis, played alternately by Kacee Clanton, Johnson says he “wasn’t looking for a Madame Tussaud‘s version of Janis. I’m looking for someone to bring their own essence of Janis to the role. And they both do that.”
Of course I must mention that Davies had originally tried out as an understudy for the Janis role during auditions in Cleveland. Johnson already had his Janis. At this particular audition, Liza Minelli decided to accompany Johnson as a kind of fly-on-the-wall.
“Mary finished and Liza turned to me and said, ‘now that’s a star’. So long story made shorter I hired Mary. And due to personal reasons the other Janis had to back out of the show. And the final preview, with two hours notice, I threw Mary onstage and Michael Joplin (Janis’ brother) turned to me and said, ‘OMG its like I’m at Woodstock again.’
The director says watching Davies come to life in the role was one of the most electrifying nights in their lives. Davies played at least 5 other states before reaching Broadway, where she garnered a Tony nomination.
They have been doing this show for four years.
“I think its important to talk about the African American influences in Janis’ life. Her influences from an early age were Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Odetta. She said that Bessie taught her how to breathe and how to feel. Nina taught her how to fill the air and quiet grace. She said when you heard Nina sing you could see the blues in the light. Her first hit was based on an Odetta song, ‘Down on Me.'”–Randy Johnson, writer and director, ‘A Night With Janis Joplin
“The portrayal of these great women is a significant part of the show so, even if you don’t love Janis Joplin, there’s something in this show for everyone and you will leave here having a great respect for Janis Joplin,” Johnson adds.
“Of course I knew of Janis. I knew of her music…and I am always up for a challenge and doing new things so I was really excited to be cast,” exudes Yvette Cason while speaking with Pryor. Cason plays the roles of Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin (and as such, does a knockout duet of ‘Spirit in the Dark’ with Joplin!). She is also Nina Simone (a role she has played before) and one of the Joplinaires. Cason completed a reprisal of the show, ‘Ella The Musical,’ playing the legendary “First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald. She has also toured in the Broadway and international productions for ‘Dreamgirls’ (and was in the feature film) and has performed with heavyweights including Kenny ‘Babyface’ Edmonds, Whitney Houston and Stevie Wonder.
Cason tells the story of how she and Janis star, Davies met. A meeting, she tells Pryor, that was set up by the universe. “I was down in Palm Springs doing a fundraiser and Mary was there also. We’d never met and when we rehearsed, because we were doing solo performances…and I heard her, no, she heard me first and she said, ‘OMG you’re amazing! I know your name.'”
“So then she goes on to do her sound check and I’m like, ‘you sound like Janis Joplin. By any chance did you do the show Janis Joplin? And that’s how we met.”
Cason stopped Davies before she left that day and promised to come and see the show at Pasadena Playhouse. She told her that she wasn’t working now (she had been on tour each time the show was running in the past) so nothing would get in the way of her seeing it.
Little did Cason know she would be doing much more than watching Davies in the show!
Next thing you know, she too was cast!
Sharon Catherine Brown, whose incredible voice in the role of the Blues Singer performing “Today I Sing The Blues” was nothing short of phenomenal! You just don’t expect such a powerful voice to come out of such a small woman. Brown and Johnson met through a mutual friend and she can’t seem to say enough about his approach to directing.
“Randy is an amazing director because he’s very organic. He wants what’s best for you as an actor. He trusts what you do. You just always feel supported. You always feel encouraged. He doesn’t lead with ego, he leads with creativity.”
Clanton, the “other Janis,” slid into the roll just as smoothly as Davies . When the show was about to hit Austin, Davies was on tour so she introduced Kacee to Randy.
“Mary introduced me to Kacee. She came the next day to [Pasadena] to meet me. She sang for me and I hired her for Austin and she blew the roof off that theatre. Clanton was nominated for “Best Actress for Broadway World Austin” and “Austin Critics Choice.”
“When I began my first show playing her back in 2001, I knew pretty much what the masses knew. I knew her hits; I knew she was a troubled soul who battled addictions; I knew she was a mighty force on stage; and I knew she died far too young,” says Clanton, who refers to her time doing another production about the rocker entitled, “Love, Janis” previously.
She tells Pryor during her interview with EURweb that, “Over time, as I have studied footage, read biographies, read through some of her own letters, spoken with friends and family, and listened to countless people tell “their Janis stories,” I have come to know her on a deep level. She was so much more than her image.”
Clanton says that initially, she was really intimidated and wasn’t sure she wanted to fill such big shoes in accepting the role. But has a different feeling on that now because of her own lifestyle.
” Now, I think it’s an incredible honor. I’ve spent most of my adult life on the road. I gave up having a family, attending weddings, birthday parties, funerals…I have missed so much and I know what it’s like to be lonely and isolated,” she says. Clanton, who actually toured as lead singer with Big Brother & The Holding Company, the first band Joplin sang lead with, continues, “I understand exactly what that feels like. I’ve lived it for years. But I wouldn’t change anything, and I don’t think she would have either. I am honored to play a warrior because it reminds me every day to be the warrior I have inside of me. To fight the good fight so women who come after me will enter an industry that’s perhaps a tiny bit more just and kind to its artists….male or female, black or white or any other color in the universal spectrum.”
Johnson says Janis was an intelligent woman who knew, early on, why she was here. I think God’s spirit — whatever you want to call it, He gave her a mission and she accomplished what she set out to do. Which was to change consciousness…She made it OK to be yourself. She made it OK not to wear makeup. She made it OK to be who you are; not to compromise yourself or take any bull. She sang from her soul.
Here she is…in all of her glory. “Pearl!”
Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27 on October 4, 1970. The hotel she lived in at the time of her death was The Landmark Motor Hotel located at 7047 Highland Blvd. in Hollywood, California. Today the hotel is named The Highland Gardens Hotel, and room #105, where Joplin was found, has written tributes and portraits inside a closet on the walls, drawn by the hoards of fans who have since stayed there.
In her Will, Joplin left $1500 for her friends to celebrate her life in the way that she would have wanted. On the party tickets were the words, “The drinks are on Pearl!” A nickname she often called herself, as well as the name of her final album. The record, released posthumously on Columbia Records in January 1971, turned out to be Joplin’s first #1 album on Billboard’s 200, and stayed there for nine consecutive weeks.
“A Night With Janis Joplin” plays through August 16 at the Pasadena Payhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA. 91101. Performances run Tuesday through Friday evenings at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.
Mary Briget Davies performs the role of Janis Joplin on Tuesday through Friday evenings at 8:00 p.m.; Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m.
Kacee Clanton performs the role of Janis Joplin on Saturdays at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday Evenings at 7:00 p.m.
Online sales and information can be found at PasadenaPayhouse.org, 626-356-7529.
In Person: On non-performance dates, the Box Office is open Tuesday – Sunday from 1:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m. On performance dates, the Box Office is open Tuesday – Saturday from 1:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. Sunday
DeBorah B. Pryor is a former professional stage actor and tenured journalist. She coaches professionals in the field of communications privately, and occasionally teaches her original public speaking workshops at UCLA Extension. She is currently preparing her “Being UN-apologetically You” inspired speaker’s tour.