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First Nighter: 'A Night With Janis Joplin' Gets Only a Piece of Her Heart

10/11/2013 01:25 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Comparisons may be odious, but in some cases, like this one, they're inevitable. Whenever performers -- such as Mary Bridget Davies in A Night With Janis Joplin, at the Lyceum -- impersonate iconic figures, they're going to be compared to the original, whether they like it or not. They certainly can't be surprised when they are.

Right at the start, then, it's imperative to acknowledge that Davies, in her long, scraggly wig and '60s hippy garb (Amy Clark's the costumer here), not only looks like the late rock star she's emulating but, much more importantly, sounds exactly like her, has the same powerful raspy quality.

Indeed, it's highly likely that ticket buyers unable to have seen Joplin perform live but who've listened to her records (the Columbia albums, not the early Mainstream album) will believe that seeing Davies in this tribute is tantamount to seeing her predecessor. I'm assuming many among these types are the ones who rose to their feet several times during the two-act show.

And yes, it's true, Davies's versions of the signature songs -- "Piece of My Heart," "Ball and Chain," "Down on Me," "Summertime," to name a few -- are lusty and undeniably crowd-pleasing. They have rock-concert flair, which is to say they soar though the auditorium like figurative flares.

The resulting audience clamor is also due in no short measure to the red-hot band producing arrangements so close to the originals it makes no matter. They're guitarists Ross Seligman and Stephen Flakus, electric bassist Patrick Harry, saxophonist John Scarpulla, trumpeter Craig Taylor, trombonist Michael Boscarino and drummer Mitch Wilson.

And yet. Yup, there's an "and yet." And yet, strong as Davies is at impressing patrons with her vocal pyrotechnics, she's only getting part of the Joplin gestalt, and, unfortunately, not the quintessential part. As those of us who did see Joplin live are fully aware -- I saw several of her concerts and haven't witnessed anything like her before or since -- she didn't just sing the blues. She lived them. The numbers in her repertoire weren't songs to her. They were vehicles by which she could express something devastatingly inconsolable deep within her.

Joplin wailing was Joplin in great psychic pain. It was a pain she was trying to assuage through drink and drugs. (Don't forget she died of a heroin-alcohol overdose.) The unquenchable need explains why she so often performed holding the mic stand in one hand and a bottle from which she took frequent swigs in the other. It explains that while Joplin did have her light moments, it was unusual for the look of despair, of rampaging torment to fade completely from her face. This was no mere entertainer.

There's a reason, incidentally, why Myra Friedman, Joplin's road manager, entitled her Joplin biography Buried Alive. That the Janis who never overcame her Port Arthur, Texas girlhood was something of an outsider is revealed in graphic detail through Friedman's volume. The author makes it clear why when Joplin rewrote the 1920s "Down on Me" with Big Brother and the Holding Company, claiming, "Looks like everybody in this whole round world, they're down on me," she wasn't simply riffing on stray thoughts. She was spewing a belief about herself she was helpless to purge.

None of this aspect of her short life (27 when she died) is included in A Night With Janis Joplin, where at two moments she does pick up a bottle but throughout the rest of which she otherwise carries on a full-of-smiles chat about the blues and the blues singers who influenced her.

These include Bessie Smith (Taprena Michelle Augustine), Odetta (De'Adre Aziza), Etta James (Nikki Kimbrough) Nina Simone (Aziza), Aretha Franklin (Allison Blackwell) and The Chantels (Augustine, Aziza, Kimbrough). Every one of the supporting cast has a voice to reckon with, and when Blackwell steps out to blast "Today I Sing the Blues," it's not only a credit to her but to Davies and writer-director Randy Johnson for allowing this glorious piece of show-stealing to go forward. The use of the above-mentioned singers as a back-up group called the Joplinaires is more questionable, since Joplin rarely, if ever, needed that kind of enhancement.

The eventual effect -- though lighted throughout by Justin Townsend with rock-like flash -- is that of a polite music-adorned conversation with a celebrity about the things that made her what she is today. That has its benefits but isn't in keeping with Joplin's major concerns. As a matter of fact, she insisted to Dick Cavett in one of his interviews with her that "polite conversation" is not her style.

Early in this Joplin's giving out with a few autobiographical comments about herself -- ultimately, not that many -- she mentions she liked to paint. When she makes the remark, projection designer Darrel Maloney aims what are ostensibly Joplin paintings on Townsend's rock-concert stage set with seating area to one side. One image is a distorted crucifixion. Another is a skull. It's a puzzlement how anyone could look at these and not understand there must be at least a somewhat troubled mind behind them that could be plumbed for a truly meaningful character study.

Anyone interested in the real Janis's effect on a crowd might want to go to YouTube and watch her singing "Ball and Chain" at the event that put her on the musical map, the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. (Which isn't mentioned in Johnson's script -- or did I miss it?) At one point the photographer (is this from the 1968 Monterey Pop documentary?), pulls away from the anguish occasionally crossing Joplin's face to catch The Mamas and the Papas Cass Elliot mouthing the word "wow." Also briefly glimpsed behind her is the then new CBS Records chief exec Clive Davis, who reports in his recent memoir, Clive: Inside the Record Business, that the Monterey experience was life-changing for him.

Another important figure in Joplin's history is Bill Graham, who owned and operated San Francisco's Fillmore, where Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company got their initial boost. Graham said at least once and maybe many more times that he didn't give the public what it wants. He gave it what it should want. In A Night With Janis Joplin, writer-director Johnson gives the public what he thinks it wants, not what those patrons should want -- whether they realize it or don't.