You could say that Zach Theatre has a bit of a history with Janis Joplin. In 1997, the company produced one of the earliest mountings of "Love, Janis," a musical about the rock icon who famously spent some time in Austin. That show, based on the book written by Joplin’s sister Laura, is a biographical story told through Joplin’s own written and recorded words. It eventually went on to an off-Broadway run in the early 2000s.
A different Janis Joplin musical, "A Night with Janis Joplin" — bigger budget, shorter running time — ran for a few months on Broadway in 2013 and 2014, garnering a Tony Award nomination for actress Mary Bridget Davies in the title role. Now, Zach has remounted that show (running through March 8), directed by playwright Randy Johnson and starring Davies. It’s a rocking but uneven treat for fans of the iconic rock singer.
Rather than a strict biography, "A Night with Janis Joplin" takes the form of a Janis Joplin concert. It goes beyond merely a cover band experience, though, by interspersing Joplin’s music with monologues and numbers from four other women — the "Joplinaires" — taking on the personas of Joplin’s musical influences, including Bessie Smith, Odetta, Nina Simone, Etta James and Aretha Franklin.
It’s no wonder that Davies has made her career in part out of paying tribute to Joplin (she has even toured with Joplin’s original band, Big Brother and the Holding Company). Davies’ vocalization is spot-on. She not only sounds like Joplin, but more importantly, she reaches the heights of rawness that are so vital to the rock icon’s enduring popularity.
The four Joplinaires — Nattalyee Randall, Tawny Dolley, Tricky Jones and Imani Ani — are just as amazing. Though they aren’t necessarily doing full impressions, they completely nail the spirit of the blues and soul singers they represent. Randall, taking on the role of Aretha Franklin at the end of the first act, is particularly powerful, bringing an infectious gospel energy that raises the crowd to its feet right before intermission.
Behind all of these talented singers is a spectacular full backing band with a soulful sound that fills the entire auditorium. Slick lighting design from Ryan O’Gara, notably, is perfectly in sync with the music.
However, though it is impressive, the extravagant, concert-like lighting is a contributor to "A Night with Janis Joplin’s" biggest flaw. It's ultimately not as strong as the sum of its parts. Joplin is a musician whose popularity is largely based on a sense of raw directness. Having that presented in such a slick package feels like it doesn’t keep with that sensibility.
Further, the monologues and songs don’t quite come together into a satisfying whole. While the first act features Joplin telling the audience her life story, the second act resorts to vague clichés about darkness and loneliness rather than getting into the specifics of her troubled relationships and drug use.
While it doesn’t create a cohesive piece of musical theater, "A Night with Janis Joplin" excels as a musical review of Joplin’s creative output and the artists who influenced her. Fans of the musician will not be disappointed, but those longing for a story that provides greater insights about her life will likely leave unsatisfied.