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Theater Review: Joplin’s ‘triumphant return’

Cast of “A Night With Janis Joplin”

"A Night With Janis Joplin” opens Wednesday at the Pasadena Playhouse. From the left, Yvette Cason, Sharon Catherine Brown, Sylvia MacCalla, Jenelle Lynn Randall with Mary Bridget Davies in the back row.

((Courtesy of Earl Gibson III)

“A Night With Janis Joplin,” Randy Johnson’s musical based on 1960s rock legend Janis Joplin, opens Wednesday at the Pasadena Playhouse, where it broke box office records in 2013 and is still the theater’s highest-grossing show to date. The return engagement marks the show’s first outing since a nearly six-month Broadway run at New York’s Lyceum Theatre ended in February of last year.

The show’s star, Mary Bridget Davies, is reprising her Tony-nominated performance as Joplin in the Pasadena production. (Kacee Clanton, who was the alternate lead in the role on Broadway — and who, like Davies, also played the rock star in Randal Myler’s earlier musical, “Love, Janis” — will perform two of the eight weekly shows during the run.)

“This is our triumphant return from Broadway,” said Johnson, who conceived, wrote and directs the show.

The lengthy hiatus between then and now wasn’t entirely planned. After the production closed at the Lyceum, a subsequent Off Broadway run at the Gramercy Theater fell through. (“Things happen and everyone tried their best,” Johnson said.) Nevertheless, it’s been something of a whirlwind journey for a musical that began in October 2010 with Johnson’s first draft, written with the blessings of Joplin’s siblings, who provided him with “really deep insights into their sister and sent me some journals and family stuff,” Johnson said. (“I won’t do a show without the family or the estate’s participation,” he added.)

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“I woke up at 3 in the morning on Oct. 10 with the idea, I made a pot of coffee and started writing, and 18 hours later the first draft was done,” he said. After touring regionally, the show (formerly titled “One Night With Janis Joplin”) opened “exactly three years later on Broadway — on Oct. 10, 2013.”

Although Joplin’s career was cut short by a drug overdose in 1970, the show is not about a tragic rock star. It is a celebration, Johnson said, of the iconic rock star’s “artistry, humanity and influences.”

Joplin’s wide-ranging musical influences are integral to the show; in Johnson’s script, four of them — Nina Simone, Odetta, Aretha Franklin and Etta James — became Joplin’s onstage “muses.”

“These were voices I grew up hearing, including Janis Joplin’s,” said Johnson, who was inspired by that commonality, and over the course of the show’s regional and Broadway outings, found that many audience members felt the same.

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“We’re all a result of our musical, literary and cultural heroes,” he said, “and that’s one of the things that I try to get that across in the show.”

The “muses” double as Joplin’s back-up singers, the “Joplinaires,” something that the singer had hoped to have at some point, Johnson noted. Onstage musicians portray Joplin’s band, Big Brother and the Holding Co.

“There are no artifices. I didn’t make anything up,” Johnson said. “There’s nothing in the show that doesn’t come from a truth of Janis’. There’s not a song in the show that she didn’t touch.” And while the four actors portray the “muses” with “characteristics that identify these women — Nina’s style and deep voice, Aretha’s gospel grandeur — another reason the show rings true,” Johnson stressed, “is that [all of the actors] bring their best, authentic self to their roles.”

The production, with choreography by Patricia Wilcox and musical direction by Tyler Evans, features new cast members as the muses-slash-Joplinaires: Sharon Catherine Brown, Yvette Cason, Sylvia McCalla and Jenelle Lynn Randall, “four local ladies with significant Broadway, theater and motion picture experience,” Johnson said, “and they’re forces to be reckoned with on their own.”

Both Davies and Clanton, meanwhile, “were spectacular from day one,” Johnson said. “I believe this was a role that Mary Bridget was born to play, and the same thing holds true for Kacee Clanton. They both have that rare, indefinable element that is Janis Joplin, and they are able to bring her to life every night.”

Sharing the role with Clanton, Davies said, “is like a sisterhood. That’s the thing about the show: the more you do it, and the more you’re with these women who understand Janis, it becomes about sisterhood and empowerment. We lift each other up, for sure.”

Johnson feels that the show’s popularity with audiences of all ages has to do with Joplin’s authenticity as well. “This was a very short career, but a very bright light. I think the timelessness of Janis’ message, both musically and as a human being, is what attracts audiences to the show.”

For younger audiences for whom Janis Joplin is “just kind of a name,” said Sheldon Epps, Pasadena Playhouse artistic director, “I think there is a great sense of discovery of who she was and what she did, and thanks to Mary and Kacee’s great performances, how tremendous she was. So in a way, we are attracting audiences who did know her and were fans, but we’re also introducing this great artist to a younger generation.”

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Whiskey-voiced blues singer Davies, 36, an independent music artist who released her debut album, “Wanna Feel Somethin’“ with her Mary Bridget Davies Group in 2011, and who had toured with Big Brother & the Holding Company prior to being cast in the show — “I call them my rock ‘n’ roll uncles,” Davies said — spent her post-Broadway break focusing on her own music. She performed a 2014 concert series at the Pasadena Playhouse with Wayne Kramer, co-founder of ’60s rock band MC5; the Doors guitarist Robby Krieger, Bob Mothersbaugh of DEVO and other artists, and she is now writing songs for a new record.

“But walking back into the Pasadena Playhouse, it was this wonderful feeling,” Davies said. “Even though I’m very comfortable with the material, it’s not a plug-and-play for me: it’s still a living, moving thing. So it was nice to be away, but… I’ve missed doing the show.”

Johnson’s prolific career has involved numerous productions shaped around an eclectic mix of real people. He produced the West Coast premiere of Larry Kramer’s landmark drama, “The Normal Heart”; co-wrote the 2012 Las Vegas production of “Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth,” and created “The Wildest — The Music of Louis Prima and Keely Smith.” Among Johnson’s other regional and national stage works are Ted Swindley’s “Always, Patsy Cline” (original producer) and the virtual, interactive “Elvis: The Concert” (co-creator and director).

“All of these artists I have a deep respect for,” Johnson said. “I think one thing I do well is create these theatrical portraits of artists. It’s something that I love.”

His own relationship with the Playhouse goes back 25 years where he began his producing career with a staging of “Carnal Knowledge.” “The Pasadena Playhouse has always [made] me feel artistically safe,” he said, “and put me in an environment in which I can thrive. I would work here any time.”

Davies’ clear affinity for Joplin, who died many years before she was born, is due in part to her understanding of the singer’s “intangible sort of energy,” she said. “It’s almost frenetic, a desire to get all of your feelings out through singing. I understand that feeling of urgency — you want to get everybody on the same page with the emotions that you’re feeling.”

One of her favorite “Janis quotes,” Davies said, is from one of Joplin’s appearances on “The Dick Cavett Show.” Cavett asked the singer what she thought about when she was performing. Her response, Davies said, “was ‘I don’t think much, I just feel.’ And there’s really no better way to put it.”

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      What: “A Night With Janis Joplin”

      Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena.

      When: Opens 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 22. Runs 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Aug. 16.

      Tickets: $55 to $150.

      More info: (626) 356-7529, www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.

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LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.


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