'A Night With Janis Joplin' review: She deserves better

Janis Joplin on April 5, 1969.

Janis Joplin on April 5, 1969. (Credit: Getty Images)

Well, so much for hopes about "A Night With Janis Joplin." Goodbye to a glimmer of faith that, just maybe, Broadway might restrain itself from flattening this formative rock outlaw into another cheese-ball tribute like the ones that mass-market the singularity of Elvis and The Beatles.

Although Joplin and her brief, raw, influential blues-rocker life had somehow evaded the clone industry, she has now entered the undead world of the body-snatched. Writer-director Randy Johnson and the siblings Joplin left behind in Port Arthur, Texas, have scrubbed her up and domesticated her into just another ordinary '60s chick who idolized black women blues singers, loved literature, sang loud and died fast.

But Joplin created herself in a day when stylists and packagers didn't decide how much belly button to show. She was the first person I saw -- or maybe just the first one I liked -- who didn't iron her frizzy hair. She was every overweight young woman with a complexion problem who acted tough in high school to grab the status denied her. But she was also an original who channeled the pain and defiance of great blues into white-girl rock and into a joyous assault against everything our parents said was glamorous.

Mary Bridget Davies has the lungs, the notes and the screaming moan in the back of the throat to suggest the real thing in "Cry Baby," "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Ball and Chain." But the actress, who also toured in a different Janis revue, is too externalized (and badly costumed) to touch the layers of vulnerability, much less the brazen sexuality that helped galvanize the adventures of a generation.

This show does not merely acknowledge Joplin's debt to black soul singers. Nor does it dwell on her death, in classic blues tradition, of heroin and Southern Comfort at 27 in 1970. Instead, "A Night With . . ." gives those women a third of her night. Excellent imitators of Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Etta James and Odetta get to sing their own songs, lots of them, while Janis gazes admiringly at them from a chair on a set that inexplicably looks like a lamp store with a band in it.

We never hear about such career turning points as the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock, sex or drugs in Haight-Ashbury or her split with Big Brother and the Holding Company. We do, however, see pictures from the family album. She deserves better. And so do we.

 

WHAT "A Night With Janis Joplin"

WHERE Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St.

INFO $49-$140, 212-239-6200, anightwithjanisjoplin.com

BOTTOM LINE Buy the albums.

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