By Jordan Wright
It’s 2013 at Arena Stage, or is it? The house is exploding and a tripped-out light show has begun.
Eight slim-hipped, long-haired musicians — a three-man horn section, crack drummer, bluesy keyboardist and three flaming-hot guitarists — are cranking out the wailing sounds of blues and heart-stopping, mind-altering rock ‘n’ roll. The audience, lit up by white-hot strobes and pulsing psychedelia, is in its seats, but barely.
They are nodding in sync to the earth-shaking beat in their button-down shirts and summer dresses, remembering their lives before kids and jobs, paychecks and mortgages. It’s the 1960s all over again.
A time of peace signs, free love and magic mushrooms. A time when you might have been lucky enough to catch Janis Joplin performing at the city’s former roller rink — known as the Alexandria Arena — in 1968.
And then it happens. Janis Joplin, that tiny Texas ball of fire, streaks down the catwalk and onto the stage.
It’s her! It’s just like her! No, it’s Mary Bridget Davies, but she’s totally channeling the late singer.
Davies appropriates Joplin’s scratchy voice, stuttering syllables, the “yeah, man” and “far out,” and the hoarse cackle that punctuated her lyrics. She has Janis down pat: down to her round, rose-colored shades and salty language as well as her bending forward in search of a single note and delivering a primal sound — a cry — and twisting it in a new way, rearing backward to let it out with a howl.
Like Joplin, her arms are outstretched in supplication, then punching the air, fighting for her place in a straight world — drawing us in while telling us we’ve failed her. We know the desolation of her soul, her lost loves, her emotional release. And Davies does too.
It was all about the blues for Joplin: “It’s the want of something that gives you the blues,” she once said. She latched onto it as a kid in middle-class Port Arthur singing folk songs at Threadgill’s, a local honky-tonk near Austin, Texas, where she met a two-bit manager and ran off to San Francisco to front for the acid rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company just before the Summer of Love.
But it was her love affair with the music of Bessie Smith — “She showed me the air, and she taught me how to fill it,” Joplin said — that lingered. Later it was Odetta, who inspired Joplin’s rendition of “Down on Me,” and Nina Simone, whose haunting version of “Summertime” was covered by Joplin. Even Aretha Franklin and Motown’s The Chantels were her muses, helping her to invent her own sound.
Sabrina Elayne Carten sings these early blues and gospel influences with an astonishing vocal range that is amazingly soulful. She delivers a spectacular and nuanced portrayal of Bessie, Aretha and Odetta.
Carten’s voice on “Spirit in the Dark,” an early Aretha-written song, Nina’s “Summertime” and Bessie’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” is as expressive as it is powerful, harkening back to the singers’ early renditions.
In “One Night With Janis,” playwright and director Randy Johnson lets Joplin share her musical story from art school dropout to the feathered, spangled rock star we came to know as “Pearl.” Ultimately though, it’s Davies ripping up the stage with Joplin’s greatest hits, putting another little piece of her heart out there in “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” “Cry Baby” and “Down On Me,” that grabs you by the throat.
Those favorites plus 20 other jammin’ Joplin numbers performed by a killer rock band and three-girl backup create a groovy night of music and memories from “The Queen of Rock and Roll.”
It’s like so far out, man.