By David C. Nichols
The legend that was and is Janis Joplin has influenced countless female rockers, many of them epic talents in their own right. And few if any theater events have done full justice to this trailblazing force of nature’s vocal impact and unflagging connection with an audience.
Over the decades since Joplin’s fatal overdose at age 27 in 1970, there have been numerous attempts to tell her story on film or stage, among them the greatly fictionalized “The Rose,” the epistolary “Love, Janis,” and several stalled biopics.
Now along comes “One Night With Janis Joplin” at the Pasadena Playhouse. Neither venue nor attendees may ever be the same. In a cosmic collusion of persona and perception, this electrifying concert musical resurrects the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll with the sort of seismically sensational results normally encountered at stadiums and pop festivals.
The show, which premiered at Portland Center Stage in 2011, comes from writer-director Randy Johnson, whose savvy at re-creating icons previously crystallized with “Always ... Patsy Cline.” Eschewing the biographical narrative gyrations of say, “Jersey Boys,” the premise of “One Night” is basic, unvarnished and supremely effective.
Following an announcement, out walks Joplin, embodied by the astonishing Mary Bridget Davies, whose resemblance to her subject is unmistakable. Then she opens her mouth, taking on Etta James’ “Tell Mama,” and jaws drop.
It’s not just that Davies evokes rather than imitates Joplin, theatrically nailing her essence, which achieves full bas-relief with “Piece of My Heart” midway through Set 1. As the evening progresses through unforced philosophizing, personal memories and the songs devotees cherish, Davies channels Joplin outright, her “Cry Baby,” “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Ball and Chain” merely the most hair-raising examples of the phenomenon.
This portraitist tour de force is mirrored by the breathtaking Sabrina Elayne Carten, whose archetypal Blues Singer inhabits Joplin’s various idols with extraordinary range, reaching house-rocking heights as Aretha Franklin in a “Spirit in the Dark” duet with Davies that brings the first half to an incendiary close.
Tricia Kelly, who alternates as Joplin at certain performances, Shay Saint-Victor and Kimberly Yarbrough, the alternate Blues Singer, make righteous, richly harmonic Joplinaires. The designs are killer, particularly Justin Townsend’s deceptively utilitarian set and spectacular light plot, and the band, fronted by music supervisor Ross Seligman, is awesome.
The same applies to “One Night with Janis Joplin,” which has the kind of ineluctable energy and galvanic power that can propel viewers out of their seats, waving glow sticks and grooving along in tandem. Given the objective, it’s a triumph for all concerned. They will rock your world.