This new diva-tribute musical may have a sultry title, but its charms are, surprisingly, far more than solely sensual. In fact, after this particular night with Janis Joplin, you’re left with a picture of a thoughtful, intense young woman with an almost ascetic devotion to soul singing – a celebration of something more akin to a religious calling than a siren’s song.
Backed by a zealous onstage band, Janis (Mary Bridget Davies) recounts bits and pieces of her life – her childhood in Port Arthur, Texas, growing up with her sister and brother; her job at the coffee shop that let her sell her art; her eventual introduction to Big Brother and the Holding Company. But interspersed among her already oft-told reminiscences – and ultimately far more moving – is a history of her influences. Her mother’s love of Broadway gets its own star turn, but most notable is the series of soul singers who inform Janis’ love of music and her own singing – and as she mentions each one, the singer appears and performs at least a few bars.
But given how calm and analytical Janis’ recollections and ruminations on music are, hearing – and watching her hear and hearing her explain – the music itself is far more emotionally evocative. Janis’ musical forbearers, from Bessie Smith (Taprena Michelle Augustine) to Nina Simone (De’Adre Aziza) to Aretha Franklin (Allison Blackwell) all get a moment in the spotlight, and these stunning vocalists do a remarkable job imitating these inimitable women – even while they do double duty. The deep-voiced Aziza is particularly spectacular, first as Odetta (singing an impassioned “Down on Me”) and later as Nina Simone, rendering a powerful “Little Girl Blue” (oddly, Simone’s also currently a character on Broadway in “Soul Doctor”). Nikki Kimbrough makes a flashy, flirtatious Etta James. But the very virtuosity of these performances gives this show, written and directed by Randy Johnson, a curiously instructional edge that feels counter to the pain and passion their – and Janis’ – music conveys.
Oddly, it’s Janis herself, the woman whose pensive attempts to explain and account for her life can seem almost didactic, who manages to come across as most passionately authentic. That’s due in part to Johnson’s wholehearted appreciation for Janis’s story, but even more so to his star. Davies seems to have been born to play Janis. Her voice is an uncanny and completely spontaneous-seeming replica of the tearing, tempestuous original, and her physical presence mimics the Pearl’s own robust frame, wide-eyed face and wild mop of hair. She even manages to capture Janis’ somewhat spacey earnestness about her search for meaning in the series of accidents that seem to have created her history.
In some cases, as with Porgy and Bess’ “Summertime” or “Down on Me,” we get to hear the song much as it was originally performed, and then as Janis recreated it as her own. Though sitting through the same song twice in a row is hardly your average Broadway experience, here, hearing the contrasting renditions is actually enlightening (though it can feel a little educational, too). We can really hear both Janis’ homage and her whole-scale appropriation of these earlier songs. Still, as Janis gets to the songs that it’s now difficult to imagine anyone else ever singing – "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)," "Cry Baby" and "Ball and Chain" – we can get an even clearer sense of what an artist this unassuming woman was, pulling pain and love and joy out of thin air to create renditions of these songs that immortalized both them and her. And for a show honoring a performer for whom authenticity was so important, it’s perhaps the ultimate, if appropriate, irony that what makes it all work is what a fantastic imitation of Janis Davies provides. It feels like we’re learning from the singer herself.