A musical superstar and her heroines

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Entertainment,Music,Barbara Mackay

If you crave relief from election year finger-pointing, just head to Arena Stage, buy a ticket for "One Night with Janis Joplin," and you'll be transported back to a time when a young woman named Janis Joplin transfixed the world with her ability to take old and new songs and transform them with her magnificent voice, so that they became something totally different. They became hers.

This is possible at Arena for one reason only: Mary Bridget Davies, who plays Janis. With a voice that goes from blaring loud to whisper soft in a nano-second, Davies is an extraordinarily accomplished musician, capable of delivering soul, blues and rock 'n' roll with all the energy, noise, gentleness, pizzazz and nitty-gritty charm that Janis did. All the nasal whine is there, as is the sweet caress. All the repetitions of "baby" and "c'mon" are there, all the impossible arpeggios, all the toughness, the dancing, the vulnerability.

But "One Night with Janis Joplin" is not just great music and nostalgia. Written and directed by Randy Johnson, it's the sort of show Joplin would have constructed if she had wanted to give thanks to the women who influenced her career: Bessie Smith, Odetta, Nina Simone, Etta James and Aretha Franklin.

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

Produced in association with the Cleveland Play House, the show is structured like a concert, with Janis chatting-up the audience, speaking about her early life in Texas, explaining how she learned to love music when her mother listened to Broadway show tunes while the Joplin family did chores on Saturdays.

Davies is helped in her tribute by Sabrina Elayne Carten, an extraordinary musician in her own right, who plays the Blues Singer. Before Joplin sings her version of some of the 23 numbers in the show, Carten appears dressed as Joplin's heroines to sing more traditional versions of those songs.

The Blues Singer is supported by three Backup Singers (Laura Carbonell, Alison Cusano and Shinnerrie Jackson). Eight musicians create the modern equivalent of Joplin's Big Brother and the Holding Company band (Len Rhodes, musical director).

Jeff Cone's costumes for Janis recreate her love of colorful crushed-velvet jackets, spangles and jewelry. His costumes for the Blues Singer are equally stunning, especially his pink fringed dress and feathered cloche hat for Bessie Smith.

At the end of the day, of course, Janis Joplin was one of a kind and anything less than a first-rate tribute is uncalled for. But then Mary Bridget Davies is one of a kind, too, so this is a first-rate tribute.

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Author:

Barbara Mackay

Special to The Washington Examiner
The Washington Examiner