You are in the 1960s. The Viet Nam War has divided the country. The social climate is changing and shifting; civil disobedience and precarious economics make headlines. And you are an audience member at a concert featuring Janis Joplin. Blink and it is 2016. The “War on Terrorism” has divided the country. The social climate changes and shifts; precarious economics and civil disobedience make headlines. And you are an audience member at Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s “A Night With Janis Joplin.”
The shift in time is that easy in the Chilewich, Gershwin, and Cohl’s production of “A Night With Janis Joplin” at Nashville, Tennessee’s James K. Polk Theatre, Tennessee Performing Arts Theatre (TPAC). 2014 Tony Award Nominee Mary Bridget Davies has inhaled Joplin, or Joplin has taken over Davies; it is difficult to discern. The moment Davies, as Joplin, struts onto the stage you are in the 1960s and you remain there, complete with the psychedelic art, the raw energy of pure music unmarred by computer enhancement, and the emotional honesty Joplin gave onstage.
Joplin’s ghost is not the only inhabitant on the best stage in Nashville. The Chantels, Nina Simone, Odetta, Bessie Smith, Etta James, and a young Aretha Franklin make appearances courtesy of the powerhouse voices and presence of Jennifer L. Warren, Q. Smith, Tawny Dolley, and Cicily Daniels. The ghosts filter on and offstage as Joplin tells her life story of “the real blues” and musical influences. Time stands still until the last song: the audience rises to sing along to “Mercedes Benz.”
One of those audience members, Janice Welch of Lafayette, Tennessee, recalls when she first “fell in love” with Joplin’s music: “I heard ‘Me and Bobby McGee’” (released 1971). Several posters of Joplin adorned her room. “When (Joplin) died, it was like the air just went out of me.” Of Mary Bridget Davies’ performance, Welch says, “It’s like Janis Joplin is channeling through her. She has inherited the soul of Janis Joplin” complete with voice, facial expressions, and body language. “I got cold chills all over when she first came out on stage, it was that real.”
An ovation should be given to the musicians who backed the singers, particularly guitarists Adam Kornreich, Jakob Reinhardt, and drummer Danny Young. Besides an outstanding performance their love of the production is contagious.
Janis Lyn Joplin, the plain little girl from the tiny town of Port Arthur, Texas, was one of those bright comets that shoot across our sky leaving a trail of stardust, burning out too soon, and searing into our memory the brilliance of natural talent. But thanks to the Tennessee Performing Arts Theatre, Mary Bridget Davies, the talent behind “A Night With Janis Joplin,” and adoring fans, the comet landed in the heart.