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Show offers good taste of who Janis Joplin was [Commentary]

MusicTheaterMusical Theater

Last Sunday, I dug deep in my wardrobe to put together the right outfit for a special event. I came up with a green, flared, multi-layered T-strapped top; stone-washed bell bottoms; dangling earrings; bangles; and denim wedge-heeled shoes. With my hair in a naturally, curly state and wearing big sunglasses, I was ready.

When I walked into the Arena Stage Theatre in D.C., I saw a couple of other people with 1960-ish outfits as we filed down the stairs, drinks in hand, in anticipation of "One Night With Janis Joplin."

I missed the show when it was at Arena Stage last fall. All of my friends who went raved about it. I understood why after seeing the show, which runs through Aug. 11.

From start to finish, the production felt mainly like a live concert, with Alison Cusano giving a believable and intense performance as Joplin. Cusano, the Joplin alternate, was filling in for award-winning Broadway star Mary Bridget Davies, who was ill.

A psychedelic flair permeated the set, which was filled with mismatched, dim lamps and rugs. Cusano worked the stage and audience as she belted out songs associated with Joplin from "Maybe" and "Mercedes Benz" to "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Kozmic Blues." The songs were interspersed with Cusano sitting in a chaise lounge in a dimly-lit corner of the stage, talking with a hippie cadence about her life growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, and the roads she took that led to her super stardom.

I enjoyed seeing the videos of events in Joplin's life that often were shown above the stage as Cusano recalled stories about Joplin, including her transformation from singing the blues to rock and roll. The only thing missing, one person in the audience said, was weed being smoked during the show.

The real Joplin, well-known for her heavy use of various hard-core drugs, died of a drug overdose in 1970 when she was only 27 years old. However, the play doesn't deal with Joplin's drug use. The closest it gets is when Cusano, dressed in bell bottoms, her long hair all over the place and wearing sunglasses and beads, drinks straight from a liquor bottle during the show.

"One Night With Janis Joplin" delves more into how Joplin's philosophical views and musical style were formed. It focuses on the major musical influences that shaped her style, which included Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Odetta and blues musicians.

"Janis was deeply inspired by great African-American female artists," Molly Smith, Arena Stage's artistic director, said in the show's Playbill. "Janis was known to sit in the back of black churches to practice her gospel singing and performed numerous covers of the songs of famous African-American blues singers… ."

In the play, Cusano said, "The blues can milk you with two notes," which was evident when she performed certain songs the audience recognized instantly by the first couple of notes and cheered enthusiastically.

In talking about the death of blues singer Bessie Smith, whose music Joplin loved, Cusano said sarcastically, "People like their blues' singers miserable and they like their blues singers to die."

In addition to Cusano's gritty and powerful rendition of Joplin classics, the show was interspersed with great back-up singers and solo performances by others. When Cusano talked about songs from "Porgy and Bess," and other favorites of Joplin, singers would appear on an upper-level catwalk or staircase to perform the numbers. They were fantastic.

Although I was too young to really appreciate Janis Joplin when she was rocking stages worldwide to sell-out audiences, I knew many of her songs and thought she was a powerful, one-of-a-kind artist.

"There never has been and never will be another Janis Joplin," said the show's playwright Randy Johnson. "She was an extraordinary woman, (that) people like to say was ahead of her time. I happen to believe she was right on time."

He's probably right, but those of us who never saw her in concert kind of wish she had come a little later and definitely stayed longer, so we could have gotten the Janis Joplin live experience. "One Night With Janis Joplin" gives us a good taste of who Janis Joplin was, and is a great tribute to a musical legend.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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