Stage show captures legendary singer Janis Joplin

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Mary Bridget Davies doesn’t just play Janis Joplin onstage in “A Night with Janis Joplin,” she is traveling the same way Joplin did in the ’60s, in a bus with a ragtag group of musicians.

So when Davies launches into such Joplin favorites as “Piece of My Heart,” “Cry Baby” or “Summertime” onstage, she’s got an eight-piece band backing her up as if they were Big Brother and the Holding Company for the earlier material, or the Kozmic Blues Band or Full Tilt Boogie Band for the later songs.

Underneath the feathers and satin, Joplin was a complicated character; a shy, bookish girl who was famously unpopular growing up in conservative east Texas. After landing in San Francisco, she reinvented herself as a wild, free spirit onstage, channeling the spirit and energy of great blues singers such as Bessie Smith. She lived a hard 27 years, swigging Southern Comfort onstage and leading a tumultuous romantic life. She died of a heroin overdose in 1970.

Mary Bridget Davies, center, reprises her role as the star in “A Night with Janis Joplin.”

Many try to sing like her, but few have the pipes or endurance. “It’s hard on my body, because it’s very athletic,” said Davies, 37, talking by phone from the show’s tour bus. “You have to sing from the marrow of your bones. It takes more than just singing, it’s a whole physical experience. I’m pretty exhausted by the end of the show.”

She has now played Joplin for three years, on and off, which is just a bit longer than Joplin was a rock star. “It’s hard to believe she was only 27 when she died, she seemed so much older, so much wiser,” Davies said.

The show opened on Broadway in 2013, and Davies was nominated for a Tony Award. “It’s surreal, to be nominated for a Tony on my first strike, my Broadway debut,” she said. Davies, a native of Cleveland, is a recording artist on her own, and has divided her time for the last three years between recording her own material in Nashville, and portraying Joplin in the show.

Interest in Joplin never seems to wane, although someone of Davies’ age had to be introduced to her music via her parents’ record collection. “I grew up in the ’90s, and it was all this fluff, pop stuff,” Davies said. “To have real music — Joplin, Hendrix, Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers to listen to and learn from — it filled me out as a human being earlier than my friends.”

Davies peforms “A Night with Janis Joplin” at the Lyceum Theatre in New York City.

The “Night with Janis Joplin” production left Broadway and is now on another three-month tour, which Davies says draws young people, along with nostalgic baby boomers.

“It’s fantastic, because they’re singing along, they know all the words,” Davies said. “There are people in their 50s, 60s and 70s who come, but it’s nice to see people in their 20s and 30s jamming out there, too.”

The biggest misconception about Joplin: “That she wasn’t smart,” Davies said. “That she was a big, loud, drunk, idiot person who was part of the hippie culture. She wanted to be a beatnik, she was very well-read, she was high-minded. She had an amazing sense of humor, and we bring that out in the show as much as possible. Back then, people just thought she was the person they saw on stage.”

Davies talked to Joplin’s younger siblings, sister Laura and brother Michael, and was intrigued by the family dynamic.

“Laura Joplin told me their father would give them a point to debate at the dinner table, and they would passionately defend whatever the point was. Then their father would say ‘OK, switch,’ and they had to defend the opposite view. They were a very high-minded family. I love that they were girls first, girls who grew up in east Texas in the ’50s. Their dad worked at an oil refinery, but he was that forward thinking and free with his daughters, you wouldn’t expect that.”

Davies peforms “A Night with Janis Joplin” at the Lyceum Theatre in New York City.

The musical isn’t a chronological narrative of Joplin’s life, but jumps around in time, to show how she was influenced by a core of blues women, and that she earned her place among them. The music icons portrayed include blues singer Smith, folk-blues artist Odetta, R&B legend Etta James and the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.

Joplin’s first hit, the Bert Berns-Jerry Ragovoy-penned “Piece of My Heart,” was a cover version of the 1967 record by Erma Franklin, Aretha’s elder sister.

In the musical, Davies, as Joplin, talks about being influenced by each artist, and the actresses playing each singer start each song in its original style. Then Davies and her band take over and perform Joplin’s version. “It’s cool to see the songs back to back, and see how they changed them, how they morphed.”

A Night with Janis Joplin

9 p.m. Sat.

Fox Theatre

Starring Mary Bridget Davies

Written and directed by Randy Johnson

Choreography by Patricia Wilcox

Musical direction by Tyler Evans

Tickets $35.50, $45.50, $59.50 and $79.50