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Concert Reviews:
A "Night" well spent with Janis Joplin at the Fox

Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

Posted: Sunday, March 6, 2016

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DETROIT -- At the start of "A Night With Janis Joplin," as she was belting out Etta James' "Tell Mama," title star Mary Bridget Davies promised that "I'll make everything alright" on Saturday night, March 5, at the Fox Theatre.

And the buoyant, energetic musical made good on that throughout its two song-drenched acts.

A revue-style show that stirred in just enough biography and context to classify it as a theater piece, "A Night With Janis Joplin" brought the late singer -- a member of rock 'n' roll's "27 club" after hear death at that age in 1970 -- to flesh-and-blood life all these years later. Like others who have inhabited historical figures on stage, whether it's Hal Holbrook as Abraham Lincoln or Jessie Mueller as Carole King (beating Davies for the Tony Award in 2014), Davies IS Joplin, from the husky nuances of her voice to a personality whose legendary bravado covered a range of insecurities and fears.

It's a fully fleshed-out picture, mind you. The script touches only lightly on Joplin's dark side, briefly referencing her romantic problems and not delving into the drugs and alcohol that ultimately killed her -- though Davies did swig from alcohol bottles a few times during the show. And her discussions about the blues conveyed the idea that the music provides a salve for troubled souls.

Mostly, however, the show presented a feel-good presentation, celebrating Joplin's powerhouse singing and live-wire stage presence. And in that Davies, shined, fronting a facile eight-piece band with authority and gusto and bringing the mostly AARP-eligible Fox crowd to its feet for emotive renditions of "Down on Me," "Maybe," "Cry Baby," "Ball and Chain," "Say With Me" and, of course, "Piece of My Heart." "This is Janis' show," Davies said early on. "You all better pay attention to me (expletive)!"

No problem there.

But Davies wasn't the show's only vocal calling card. Four backup singers, billed as the Joplinaires, also took on roles of other singer's who influenced Joplin, often using their own performances of songs to introduce Joplin's. All were exceptional, though Q. Smith stood out with her portrayals of Nina Simone during a generation-spanning duet with Davies on "Little Girl Blue" and as Aretha Franklin on a dynamic, if overdone, romp through "Spirit in the Dark" that not surprisingly went over particularly well in the Queen of Soul's home town.

That was a clever, and valuable, touch that gave "A Night With Janis Joplin" more weight. You might have gone to hear the songs, but you certainly left knowing more about the singer and what made her tick -- musically, at least.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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