Reviving a tribute to rock 'n' roll

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Entertainment,Music,Barbara Mackay

One of Arena Stage's most successful shows in the 2012-2013 season was "One Night With Janis Joplin," a musical tribute to the "Queen of Rock 'n' Roll." In fact, the show was so successful that Arena Stage is bringing it back as its summer show.

Written and directed by Randy Johnson, the musical is constructed like a concert, with little emphasis on plot and a lot of concentration on Joplin's singing.

Joplin will again be portrayed by Mary Bridget Davies, who begins the show by establishing her love of the extraordinary female singers who inspired her: Bessie Smith, Etta James, Odetta, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin.

Those characters are all portrayed by a woman called the Blues Singer, played by Sabrina Elayne Carten, an extraordinary singer with a background in opera and musical theater. Before Joplin sings her version of the musical's 23 numbers, Carten appears dressed as Joplin's heroines to sing more traditional versions of their songs.

If you go
'One Night With Janis Joplin'
» Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW
» When: June 21 to Aug. 11
» Info: Tickets start at $40; 202-488-3300; arenastage.org

There is a strong connection between the singers that Carten portrays and the persona of Joplin. "The character of the Blues Singer is really like Janis' alter ego," said Carten. "She's the music that is in Janis' head, the music that was in Janis' life as she grew up. These wonderful women were a big influence on her, on the way she listened to and interpreted music. She really understood the music enough not to do an imitation of it but to bring her own method to their songs.

"The show is really incredible. It's not uncommon for us to receive three or four standing ovations. You have really hard-core Janis Joplin fans, but then you also have new audience members who maybe don't know her music that well, but they become fans, too. It's not strange for us to run across people who've seen the show four times."

Jeff Cone's costumes for the Blues Singer are colorful evocations of past eras. Among the most memorable are a pink fringed dress and feathered cloche hat for Bessie Smith and a purple dress for Aretha Franklin. Justin Townsend's fanciful set uses Joplin's own paintings lit by breathtaking psychedelic light shows.

"This musical is a great way for people to see the inside of Janis, who she was and what she felt," said Carten. "This is the music that helped create her. And even if you're not a Janis Joplin fan, you can find something to enjoy here. There's something in the show for everybody.

"We look forward to reaching a larger community in D.C. this time. There's a special energy to this show, and we're really excited to be coming back to Arena."

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Author:

Barbara Mackay

Special to The Washington Examiner
The Washington Examiner