Chris Erskine’s take on ‘Janis Joplin’ show in Pasadena

“One Night With Janis Joplin”
Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin in “One Night With Janis Joplin” now playing at the Pasadena Playhouse.
(Jim Cox)

Into the decadent world of Pasadena we go. . . .

More and more I am drawn to that little triangle of treasures near Vroman’s Bookstore: the Laemmle theaters, of course, where the audiences are either amazingly reverential or fully asleep, and the little courtyard across the street, where El Portal pours more margaritas than in all of Cabo, even on school nights.

This is pretty much all I need in a city — a giant bookstore, a good set of theaters, a friendly watering hole where I can slowly suck all the vodka off my ice cubes. What Haydn did for violins, I am doing for the fine sport of recreational drinking.

Mind you, I am doing all this in Pasadena, which may as well be Oklahoma City, far as most of you Westsiders are concerned.


Add in the Pasadena Playhouse, and it’s become almost an embarrassment of riches up here along Colorado Boulevard.

I ask you: Is there such a thing as too much culture? Pasadena’s about to find out.

For the next three weeks, Janis Joplin is camping here, in a sort of biopic / live musical full of growling vocals, a blasty eight-piece band and three hippie-chick back-up singers (marry me, Shay Saint-Victor).

Softening the experience is the warm syrup of Sabrina Elayne Carten, who is there to give voice to many of Ms. Joplin’s influences — Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone. Carten can marry me too.


Several times, she steals the show, drawing hoots of appreciation with an old Gershwin or Smith song. Then Mary Bridget Davies (as Joplin) steals it back. This isn’t so much a musical as it is a prize fight by two heavyweight voices.

The winner? You, probably.

Assuming, that is, you can handle rock at its rawest. One pretty young thing, probably pushing 80, walked out at halftime, saying she didn’t really appreciate “all that screaming.” But most of her friends stayed the course and walked out noticeably younger. It’s a pretty wild show they have going here in Pasadena, City of Motherly Love.

I assure you this is good stuff, even if you’re not a huge Joplin fan. In look, mannerism and sound, Davies completely becomes her.

Who knows how Davies’ vocal cords withstand the full-throttle buzzing this performance demands? Must be the equivalent of singing a marathon.

Her instrument is similar to Joplin’s, with “a higher durability,” Davies explains later, saying she sips Pedialyte or tea to help restore her voice.

Still, I don’t get it.

For more than two hours, she howls into the hurricane with that lawn mower voice, and if you’re thinking to yourself, “I don’t know — all that screaming?” note that the music is part of a winsome running monologue, in which she describes her Port Arthur, Texas, upbringing, her thirst for the blues and the sultry mournful voices of midcentury America.


“I liked ‘Porgy and Bess’ so much I wore that record out,” she says of her early influences.

Then in steps Carten, with a rendering of “Summertime” so thick and Southern you could pour it on your pork chops.

Back comes Joplin/Davies, to tell how she was virtually kidnapped to California, where she joined her first rock ‘n’ roll band, and there was no looking back.

“No man has ever made me feel as good as an audience,” she says at one point.

Cue the funeral dirge. Joplin’s time in the limelight would last only about four years.

I’m left with the feeling that this Janis Joplin was great, but she was certainly no Beyoncé. Joplin never had her own line of perfume, for example, no line of skin care products.

She couldn’t swing on a trapeze like Pink, or floozy around like Katy Perry.

Joplin left us with only the hair whip, which I think she invented, and those crazy tinted granny glasses. And a seismic sound that will be playing in the better bars at 1 a.m. for the next hundred years.


And finally, this aside:

Love the young people, as Letterman would say, though they seem to suffer from some sort of technical alcoholism — Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, MeTube.

Joplin hailed from a generation of guitar players. We now have a generation of thumb clickers.

So what music will they be celebrating 40 years from now?

Quick, barkeep, another round.