A musical icon onstage at Arena

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Entertainment,Barbara Mackay

"One Night With Janis Joplin" at Arena Stage is not a musical, and it's not a play. Instead, says Mary Bridget Davies, who plays Joplin, it's more akin to a concert. "We want you to clap and laugh at things you think are funny. It's two and a half hours when you can forget about everything else," she said.

Davies, who has gotten rave reviews for her interpretation of Joplin, is said to be "channeling" the Queen of Rock 'n' Roll, an image that's helped by the fact that she sings with the remaining members of Joplin's original band, Big Brother and the Holding Co.

The man who created and is directing "Janis Joplin" is Randy Johnson, who has structured "One Night" as an evening from Joplin's life when she was already successful. "The premise of the show is that you're seeing Janis in performance in whatever town you're in," said Davies. "She tells stories about where she came from, how she wrote this or wrote that. And then she does the numbers. There are 23 numbers in the show. It's crammed with music.

"There are three female backup singers and another actress who has a revolving role, loosely titled the Blues Singer. She's played by Sabrina Elayne Carten. She embodies all the singers who came before Janis, like Odetta, Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, Etta James and Aretha Franklin. There's never a speaking interaction between the Blues Singer and me, though we do sing a few numbers together," said Davies.

Onstage
'One Night with Janis Joplin'
Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW
When: Through Nov. 4
Info: $45 to $94; 202-488-3300; arenastage.org

The show primarily demonstrates the influence that the great singers of the blues, soul and rock 'n' roll worlds had on Janis. "Janis didn't land on Earth at 25 years old as this blazing rock star," said Davies. "She grew into it. The people she really looked up to were artists like Otis Redding and Tina Turner. She wanted to be a soul singer, and by the end of her career, she was getting really good at it."

The show does not explore every angle of Joplin's life. "It's really just a celebration of her music," said Davies.

Davies is not a classically trained vocalist. "I was given a very great gift," Davies explained. "I have a similar voice only in the sense that I can make sounds and wails and then bring it back to smooth tones like Janis did. But -- and this is true of any woman playing Janis -- if for one second it's about you, you're not doing your job.

"Janis was so vulnerable and honest and open, and when she performed, she left it all onstage. No one ever sang like Janis Joplin. And no one ever will. That's why she's so prominent even now, 42 years after she died."

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Barbara Mackay

Special to The Washington Examiner
The Washington Examiner