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‘A Night With Janis Joplin’ Brings Star’s Legacy To Life

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It's been more than 40 years since the death of music and rock legend Janis Joplin, and a current touring stage makes the case that Joplin had much more to offer than another tale of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

  

Mary Bridget Davies grew up listening to Janis Joplin’s music. Later, she came up in the Kansas City music scene singing in her own blues band and earning a few comparisons to Joplin. So it wasn’t a big surprise when she was tapped to play Joplin in the stage show A Night With Janis Joplin.

The show gave Davies a chance to sing on Broadway and now sees her taking Joplin’s music across the country. The singer says that she’s aware that the audience is coming to see someone who fully embodies Janis Joplin—a task that the former Kansas City musician is up to.

“Either it’s people who have seen her, and they’re coming back to relive that,” Davies says, “or it’s people that never got the chance to and this is as close as it’s going to get for them. Either way, it’s a huge responsibility on my behalf to pull off as authentic a performance as possible. Because [Joplin] is a real person. She did exist. She isn’t a character that I have the freedom to move and shift around. I have to be very spot-on for [the audience]. 'Cause I’m a Janis fan too, and I wouldn’t want to come to a show and see someone do half a job. I’d want to see Janis when the girl came out on stage.”

Davies is aware of doubters, but she also has a pretty good sense of when they become believers.

“By the time we do ‘Piece of My Heart’ in the first act, and I hit that scream at the end,” she says. “I have a lot of people stay at the stage door after the show and say, ‘You know, I didn’t think you could pull it off. I came in and didn’t know what to expect. There’s no way this girl’s going to be able to do it and then you did it.’”

Davies says that for her, the best moment of each night comes while performing what was also a centerpiece of Joplin’s career, “Ball and Chain.”

“You can’t get any bigger than that. It’s kind of the apex of the second act, and I love it,” she says. “Because everybody’s invested in the show by then.”

Although Joplin was a focal point of popular culture in the 1960s, her life was cut short when she died at age 27 of a heroin overdose. But Davies says A Night With Janis Joplin is about much more than Joplin’s excesses and death.

“This show is about her musical legacy and the women who helped shaped her sound,” Davies says. “This isn’t about the Forever 27 Club, this isn’t about heroin, this isn’t about all that stuff. This is about the music.”

Davies says that her appreciation for Joplin has grown as she’s learned more about the rock legend. Joplin was a woman who made her own way in that world, without anyone’s footsteps to follow in.

“She was the original rock star. Female rock star. So she didn’t really have anyone to look up to and say, ‘OK, well I don’t do that. I can’t do that, or I’ll do this or not.’ She was just kind of trial and error with everything she did. And being on the road and being a woman in that time in that climate and the band all hooking up with girls after the show and disappearing. She was a very lonely person. She would read. She was very well-read. She was highly intelligent," Davies says. "There’s just this tableau of her that’s just this loudmouth, drunken banshee. There was so much more to her than that. She was a lovely, sweet, hysterically funny and intelligent person. I bring that out as much as I can. But that’s who I love. Because that’s who I am at the end of the day too.”

Catch Mary Bridget Davies in A Night With Janis Joplin this Wednesday evening at the Orpheum Theatre.

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Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.