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One Night With Janis – Rocks Out at Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
June 24, 2013
Special to Alexandria TimesDC Metro Theater Arts

It’s 2013 at Arena Stage or is it?  The house is exploding and a tripped out light show has begun.  Eight slim-hipped long-haired musicians – a three-man horn section, a crack drummer, bluesy keyboardist and three flaming hot guitarists – are cranking out the wailing sounds of blues and heart-stopping, mind-altering rock n’ roll.  The audience, lit up by white-hot strobes and pulsing psychedelia, is in their seats – but barely.  They are nodding in sync to the earth-shaking beat in their button-down shirts and summer dresses, remembering their lives before kids and jobs, paychecks and mortgages.  It’s the ‘60’s all over again.  A time of peace signs, free love and magic mushrooms.  A time when you might have been lucky enough to catch Janis Joplin performing in 1968 at the city’s former roller rink known as the Alexandria Arena.

And then it happens.  Janis Joplin, the tiny Texas ball of fire, streaks down the catwalk and onto the stage.  It’s her!  It’s just like her!  No, it’s Mary Bridget Davies, and she’s totally channeling Janis.  The scratchy voice, the stuttering syllables, the “yeah, man” and “far out” and hoarse cackle she punctuated her lyrics with.  Davies has Janis down pat – down to her round rose-colored shades and salty language, down to her bending forward in search of a single note and delivering a primal sound, a cry, and twisting it in a new way, rearing backwards to let it out with a howl.  So like Janis with arms outstretched in supplication, then punching the air fighting for her place in a straight world – drawing us in while telling us we’ve failed her.  We know the desolation of her soul, her lost loves, her emotional release.  And Davies does too.

Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin  Photo by Jim Cox.

Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin Photo by Jim Cox.

It was all about the blues for Janis, “It’s the want of something that gives you the blues,” she once said.  She latched onto it as a kid in middle-class Port Arthur singing folk songs at Threadgill’s, a local honky-tonk near Austin, where she met a two-bit manager and ran off to San Francisco to front for the acid-rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company just before the “Summer of Love”.

But it was her love affair with the music of Bessie Smith, “She showed me the air and she taught me how to fill it,” that lingered.  Later it was Odetta, who inspired Janis’ rendition of “Down on Me” and Nina Simone whose haunting version of “Summertime” was covered by Janis.  Even Aretha Franklin and Motown’s The Chantels were her muses paving the way for her to invent her own sound.

Sabrina Elayne Carten sings these early blues and gospel influences with an astonishing vocal range that is heart-stoppingly soulful with a spectacular and nuanced portrayal of Bessie, Aretha and Odetta.  Carten’s voice on “Spirit in the Dark” an early Aretha-written song, Nina’s “Summertime”, and Bessie’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” is as expressive as it is powerful, harkening back to the singers’ early renditions.

In One Night With Janis playwright and director Randy Johnson lets Janis share her musical story from art school dropout to the feathered spangled rock star we came to know as ‘Pearl’.  And ultimately it’s Davies ripping up the stage with Janis’ greatest hits, putting another little piece of her heart out there in “Me and Bobby McGee”, “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)”, “Cry Baby” and “Down On Me”, that grabs you by the throat – those and twenty other jammin’ Janis numbers performed by a killer rock band and three-girl backup that translate into the grooviest night of music and memories from the “Queen of Rock and Roll”.  It’s like so far out, man.

Through August 11th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 484-0247 or visit

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