Singer Mary Bridget Davies leads cast of musical ‘A Night with Janis Joplin’
Special to the Daily
If you go …
What: “A Night with Janis Joplin,” the Broadway national touring musical.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 9.
Where: Vilar Performing Arts Center, 68 Avondale Lane, Beaver Creek.
Cost: Tickets start at $68.
More information: Tickets are on sale now at the Vilar Box Office, by calling 970-845-8497 and at http://www.vilarpac.org.
BEAVER CREEK — Texas-born Janis Joplin was a rock ’n’ roll trailblazer and was regarded as one of the genre’s greatest vocalists. She lived for the stage and set a benchmark of incredible performances that inspired rockers who followed — particularly women. Joplin, who always played by her own rules, died in 1970 of a heroin overdose.
In 2011, writer-director Randy Johnson mounted the musical “A Night With Janis Joplin,” with the approval and co-operation of Joplin’s siblings, Michael and Laura. Joplin was played by actress Cat Stephani, who bowed out during the final preview. Enter the understudy: Mary Bridget Davies, who nailed it.
“Davies’ Tony-nominated performance is so uncanny that it’s the role she was born to play,” Johnson said. “When Mary did ‘Ball and Chain,’ Michael and I stood up and said, ‘It’s like we’re at Woodstock all over again.’ She connects with the audience on the same level that Janis did. Mary is a very straightforward person and performer, and that’s why it works.”
Davies a perfect fit
As she told Daily Press writer Mike Holtzclaw, Davies remembers jumping up and down, at about age 6, on “one of those green corduroy couches, listening to this awesome rock’ n’ roll and blues music that my baby boomer parents were playing. And this song came on, ‘Piece of My Heart,’ and that voice just made my ears perk up. It was the coolest, most exciting, scariest thing I’d heard, all at the same time.”
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Davies, a trained dancer and actor, began singing with various bands, before fronting her own successful blues band, The Mary Bridget Davies Group. Her dynamic vocals caught the attention of Sam Andrew, founder of Big Brother and the Holding Company, who had launched Joplin in 1967. Andrew asked Davies to join the surviving members of Big Brothers on an international tour, and then in 2005, she won the lead role for the national tour of “Love Janis,” another Joplin musical, which Andrew directed.
It’s probably because of her parent’s influence that Davies fell so naturally into the role of Joplin. Her father, Brian, played guitar and sang for a rock band; her mother, Mary Ellen, collected albums by Bessie Smith, Dinah Washington and Etta James, to name a few. Their home was always filled with the music of these legendary women. Davies sometimes practiced on a karaoke machine. She entered singing competitions; she was natural.
“Mary would sing all the time,” Mary Ellen said. “We could never get her to sleep.”
Rise to fame
“A Night With Janis Joplin” traces the singer’s rise to fame in the late ’60s and features signature hits including “Piece of My Heart,” “Summertime,” “Cry Baby” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” Sharing the stage are actresses portraying female singers who inspired Joplin, including Aretha Franklin, Bessie Smith, Odetta, Nina Simone and Etta James. Those in the know, however, say that Louisiana blues man, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter was actually the one who inspired Joplin to become a musician.
When asked how she decided to go from being a blues singer who sings some Janis Joplin songs to actually becoming Janis Joplin on stage, Davies said, “The first time I was asked about it, I politely declined. I wanted to be able to do my own things, lay my own roots. Then a year and a half later, another audition came up and I said, ‘what the heck,’ and I got it.
“I’m not just a mockingbird. Playing Janis is more than just putting on feathers and screaming at the top of your lungs. Having that real respect and acidity for the blues like she did is one of the biggest connections we have. You have to know what it means to sing from that place. You can’t fake the blues. I had a lot more time preparing this character than most other actresses.”
Davies has won critical acclaim for the way she is able to channel Joplin’s unique sound and mannerisms, and critics agree — it’s well-deserved.
“Janis was such a musical and soulful person and she always had that little live wire going on,” Davies said. “Playing her gave me the freedom to be as big and over-the-top as she was. She was the first female rock ’n’ roll star. She was the first one to move that way, with her hair flying everywhere, screaming and grimacing and totally unconventionally beautiful. That’s something I plugged into. I just feel it.
“Her persona was the Southern Comfort-guzzling, biker chick train wreck, but there was much more substance to her than that. This white girl from Nowhere, Texas, took blues and soul and made it popular by giving it her all. She was the first female rock star.”