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Center Stage

A rock goddess and her ghosts

3/9/2016

Now and then, before a performance, Mary Bridget Davies will sense someone behind her but turn to find nothing there.  At that, she’ll smile.

“A Night with Janis Joplin.” Hoyt Sherman Place, www.hoytsherman.org. March 15, 7:30 p.m.

“A Night with Janis Joplin.” Hoyt Sherman Place, www.hoytsherman.org. March 15, 7:30 p.m.

“All right, Janis,” Davies will say. “I’ll do right by you tonight.”

She means Janis Joplin. If anyone can contact the 1960s rock goddess, now dead almost half a century, it would be Davies.  The Cleveland-born performer has been playing Joplin for years. She had her own band that toured the Midwest for a while, and she knows Iowa fans will join the crowd at Hoyt Sherman. Still, something in her voice and personality drew her to Joplin standbys like “Piece of My Heart.”

As for “A Night With Janis Joplin,” the show has taken Davies to Broadway where she earned a Tony nomination. It has a few quiet moments such as when the lights go down on the eight-piece band in a concert arrangement. During these interludes, the star settles into what she calls “the living room” in one corner. Using material from Joplin’s interviews and more, she shares some of the woman’s life, times and thoughts on music.

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“We worked with Janis’ brother and sister,” Davies explains. “To keep the show real meant keeping it fun as well. For her, music was a celebration.”

So the creative team came round to the “theater magic,” as Davies calls it, which makes this “Night” unique. Backstage, the star may or may not have any mystic encounters — but onstage, she does.

“In life, Janis never got to sing with her idols. But in the show, we give her the opportunity,” says Davies.

The legendary Bessie Smith, for instance, lived well before Joplin, yet one of the younger singer’s last acts was to help pay for Smith’s tombstone.  Now the old blues belter gets one of the performances that introduce other voices to “A Night.”

“Like we have Q. Smith,” Davies says. “Her voice is so incredible. She can sing something from an opera, ‘Summertime,’ and then come out later and do Aretha.”

The show allows Smith to start “Summertime” in the style of “Porgy and Bess,” then switch to Davies attacking the tune the way Joplin did. Davies calls the result “a musical conversation between Janis and four amazing, powerful black women. Together, they made her what she was.”

They inspired Joplin’s distinctive look as well.

“Oh, the costumes!” exclaims Davies. “I mean, when you see Nina Simone in a head wrap, or when you see Etta James in leopard-print, you realize where Janis got her psychedelic flair.”

Yet the costume changes and supernatural effects never keep “A Night” from being a rock and roll show. Davies loved playing Broadway, to be sure.

“It’s every little girl’s dream,” she admits.

Still, touring with a band and singers feels more exciting to her.

“It’s such a thrill every time you show up in a new town,” she says. “You’ve got just one night to rock their world.”

Overheard in the Lobby: “One Actor, One Writer, One Week” has announced participants for the March 14 performance.  CV

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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