“No man has made me feel as good as an audience,” Davies declares, fully in charge of her environment, a stage realistically outfitted by the splendid set
and lighting designer Justin Townsend as a road-stop home for Joplin and her band — and enveloped aptly in what might be termed a purple haze. The violet halo accommodates the sentimental picture conjured here, of a hard-living interpreter of blues and rock, found dead in a Hollywood hotel room in 1970, less than a month after the death of fellow psychedelic legend Jimi Hendrix.
In the annals of jukebox musicals — and there have been enough of them to qualify for their own annals — “One Night With Janis Joplin” is an entry both straightforward and sanitized. Like most such evenings, its success depends entirely on a trick, that we buy the illusion of corporeal truth. This one works because we do. Even if Davies seems in technical terms to be the better singer, she’s close enough in mannerism and vocal personality to allow audience members of a certain age quickly to set aside any skepticism and simply savor the songs — including such hits from Joplin’s short but spectacular career as “Ball and Chain,” “Me and Bobby McGee” and, of course, “Piece of My Heart.”
The show neither transforms the star’s work, as Twyla Tharp did for Billy Joel’s songbook in “Movin’ Out,” nor assembles it into an engaging narrative, a la the “Jersey Boys” book for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. It doesn’t go the warts-and-all route, either, and maybe the clichés are such that the omission is a relief: The only acknowledgment here of her drug and alcohol addictions is a bottle of hooch from which she takes a single swig during Act 1. (It isn’t even the first show based on Joplin’s career: “Love, Janis,” in which Davies also appeared, has been playing around the country for a decade.)
But it sure sounds good. The context is a concert out of Johnson’s imagination, one in which Joplin recounts growing up in Texas in the 1940s and ’50s, and the deep impact black women singing the blues made on her. Carten performs in the styles of these other greats, and some of the production’s most rewarding sequences occur as it segues from her role models’ performances of a song, such as Odetta’s rendition of “Down on Me,” to Joplin’s anguished, leave-blood-on-the-floor version.
Accompanied by an eight-piece band (all in shaggy Jesus ’dos) and a trio of backup singers (in “Hair”-era headbands and dashikis), Davies aims for Joplin’s raw emotionality, the sensation that she’s up there practically surrendering a lung for you. The style is a far cry from Garland or Piaf, but the effect is similar. How can you not be grateful for such melodic self-sacrifice?