Mary Bridget Davies at Arena . . . With Janis Joplin
The voice on the phone didn’t give many clues. I expected to hear Janis Joplin’s growly, smoky voice, but, after all, I was talking to Mary Bridget Davies. Davies stars in the current run of “One Night With Janis Joplin” at Arena Stage. She takes the stage performing, being, acting the part of Joplin, who for a time in the 1960s was the queen of rock and blues in America before she died of a heroin overdose in 1970.
Davies talks smartly, movingly about Joplin, the person and the music, the blues. She’s had plenty of experience herself singing the blues, and, well, being Janis. If you catch any of the videos on YouTube, the Joplin persona and voice and way of singing rises easily to the surface, and catches you full force.
“One way or another I’ve been singing her songs for a while,” Davies, a thirty-some- thing woman who hails from Lakewood near Cleveland, Ohio, says. “Even when I was little, people tell me I was jumping up and down on the couch singing ‘Piece of My Heart.’ ” That would be Joplin’s signature heartbreak song from her initial hit album “Cheap Thrills” back in 1968, when she bowled the rock world over with her emotional blues style and let-it-all-hang-out persona.
“I’m not her, in that sense,” she said. “But you know, when I get on stage in this show, there are times when I just sort of let her take over, I’m singing a song, and there she is and I just step aside.”
“One Night With Janis Joplin,” staged in partnership with the Cleveland Play House and written and directed by Randy Johnson, is a show on the order of a concert, but also a trip through the sources of Joplin’s particular bluesy style, by way of Sabrina Elayne Carten as the blues singer paying homage to African American blues singers like Etta James, Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin.
Davies got the role after the original actress backed out, but she was more than ready. She had already performed in “Love, Janis,” had already the affinity for Janis’s music, had parents who were genuine members of the rock and roll, blues and country rock world, played and fronted with Big Brother and the Holding Company, Joplin’s original band, and has her own blues band and record her own albums.
“Yeah, you could say she was a big part of my life all along,” she said. “This is something special. It’s like being her on stage at least, and that’s okay, more than okay. She lived quite a life. She had this unique gift she didn’t even know she had. One day, she sang and she knew she could do it and that was that. The first kind of music she heard was “Summertime”, which she sang herself.” When she got the role, she played it in Cleveland and it was like a homecoming for her. One critic wrote that “While there never has been and never will be another Janis Joplin, Mary Bridget Davies is awfully damn close.”
“I think audiences really get it into it—and you get all kinds of people, people of that gen- eration, people my age, maybe even young, not teens so much unless their folks bring them,” she said. “I think they have the same reaction as people did back then. It’s the raw emotions. The songs are so out front, they get to you.
That was Joplin’s stock in trade—she laid herself out there, just about without any let up through songs like “Piece of My Heart”, “Me and Bobby McGee”, “Cry” and the difficult, wrenching “Ball and Chain”, a regular mountain for singers to climb.
“People said, well, she doesn’t exactly look like Janis, but then they get into it, and it’s some- thing different,” she said. “You have to wonder what she would have been like if she had lived.”
She’d be in her late sixties, or a little more, like her “Big Brother” band mates, and, Davies thinks “could have been like the soul or god- mother of country rock and the blues, because in truth, nobody sings like that anymore.”
Nobody, except maybe Mary Bridget Davies.