Etta James, Bessie Smith, Odetta, Janis Joplin: these great singers all passed on years ago. But their music, voices and spirits are being resurrected onstage at The Pasadena Playhouse. Even before its opening night, “One Night with Janis Joplin” had to be extended because of the buzz this concert-style musical has generated from all of its sold-out performances across the country.
And these truly are tour-de-force performances. Mary Bridget Davies doesn’t just sing Janis, she inhabits her in this walk through the singer’s brief life and influences. It’s an uncanny and brilliant immersion into the heart and soul of the woman known as the queen of rock ’n’ roll.
It’s not a simple biographical musical; it’s a concert event that incorporates Janis’ short monologues between stellar performances of classic blues and Joplin’s own songs, performed by Davies as Janis, and the impossibly brilliant vocal stylings of Sabrina Elayne Carten as “the blues singer.”
As Janis speaks about them, Carten illuminates the singer’s blues influences. Carten sings “Summertime” from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” like the professional opera singer that she actually is, but when she embodies Odetta, Bessie Smith, Etta James, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin, she demonstrates one of the most powerful and versatile voices I’ve ever heard, sending chills up my spine.
If Davies weren’t so believably real as Janis, Carten’s singing might steal the show. But the staging is beautifully balanced between the two of them, backed by a great band that replicates all the rock licks, solos and jams that Janis and Big Brother and the Holding Company made famous, and the Joplinaires, the backup singers who also appear as alternates for the two stars.
Davies is phenomenal. It’s an intensely physical show. Her physical resemblance to Joplin is spot on, and she’s got Janis’ “hair in the face,” pulsing, foot-stomping rhythmic body gestures, and of course the hippie clothes, feather boa halo and giant pink eyeshades down cold. But the extraordinary thing is her ability to capture the essence of Janis in the rasp, the grit, the purity, the power of that voice, sadly silenced too young.
Joplin fans will rejoice to hear her classics sounding just like the originals: “Piece of My Heart,” “Ball and Chain,” “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Mercedes Benz” among many other of her hits. The revelation is how Joplin came to be the voice that we remember, finding out about how much influence her mother’s love of Broadway musicals and vocal coaching had on her, the women whose blues taught her about life and discovering that Joplin loved the local library, whose art books helped her become a visual artist as well.
“One Night with Janis Joplin” is a wonder, and not to be missed. Visit www.pasadenaplayhouse.org for information and tickets.
Japanese anime, Western voices
Opening this week at the Landmark Theatres in West L.A. and expected to open next week at Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex is a beautiful, simple and moving animated feature from G-Kids, distributors of animated and youth-oriented films, called “From Up on Poppy Hill.” It was produced by Studio Ghibli, the Japanese production house that created the popular “Spirited Away.”
Made in the Japanese anime style, it has been translated into English featuring a who’s who of actors’ voices: Beau Bridges, Chris Noth, Christina Hendricks, Gillian Anderson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bruce Dern are just a few of the notables who bring these gentle characters to life.
The story is a coming-of-age tale, featuring the voice of Sarah Bolger as virtuous Umi and Anton Yelchin as brave student leader Shun, teenagers who find themselves attracted to one another. Set in 1963 Yokohama during a period of optimistic growth and renewal in post-World War II Japan, the story revolves around Umi’s hope that her father, lost at sea in the war, will return; and Shun, who leads a movement to save his beloved, but rundown, school clubhouse from destruction.
Every day, Umi runs flags up the pole on her home’s high hill to help guide her ship pilot father home; when she receives a mysterious note, she thinks he really is coming back to her. But it’s Shun who sent the note, and their budding romance is in danger of being torn apart when confusion arises about whether they might actually be brother and sister.
This is such a beautiful movie. You quickly forget that you’re watching animation and instead you’ll marvel at how engaging the characters are as well as the near-photographic nature of the spectacular scenery, from misty harbors to sun-drenched, richly colored gardens and bustling cityscapes evoked in painterly detail.
“From Up on Poppy Hill” was Japan’s highest-grossing film in 2011, and won the country’s highest honor for animation. It’s clearly culturally Japanese: American animation focuses on superheroes, loud noises, exaggerated action, cartoony characters and even violence. There’s nothing of the sort in this film. Even the protests the kids engage in are seen as respectful.
I highly recommend “From Up on Poppy Hill.” It’s a respite from all the shoot-em-ups and even the artful, independent troubled youth films that populate our movie theaters. Seek it out at The Landmark and call Monica 4-Plex to find out when it runs in Santa Monica.
Don’t forget that tonight, March 21, at Santa Monica’s YWCA, Santa Monica Rep presents “Shine,” the storytelling series featuring amateurs and professionals who share true tales of positive change, specially enhanced this time with live music.
Tonight’s theme is “storms” and the line-up features Reagan Payne, an award-winning published playwright who created the now 5-year-old blog, TheGoodMuse.com, which shares volunteer opportunities across the Southland.
Also on the line up are Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District Facilities Manager (and teacher, actor, director and clown) Carey Upton; award-winning screenwriter, playwright and producer Arlene Sarner (“Peggy Sue Got Married”) and breast cancer survivor and activist Spike Dolomite, among others.
Admission is by donation; more details at www.storiesbloom.com. The YWCA is located at 2019 Fourth St. in Santa Monica.
Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW — Santa Monica. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.