Cry, Cry Baby! As Janis Joplin, Mary Bridget Davies Gives Broadway a Piece of Her Heart

‘I was accidentally preparing for this role all my life’

Davies as Joplin. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Davies as Joplin. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The middle-aged marrieds who sat in front of me last August in D.C.’s Arena Stage shed 20 years and untold pounds before my eyes, dancing in their seats through A Night with Janis Joplin, a song-strong celebration that passes convincingly for a live concert by the rock ’n’ roll icon who died of a booze and drug overdose 43 years ago this month.

This raw and raucous facsimile, written and directed by Randy Johnson and sanctioned by Ms. Joplin’s siblings, Laura and Michael, bows Oct. 10 at the Lyceum. It represents a remarkable and artful synchronization of a pop-rock legend old beyond her years (Joplin died at age 27) and a character actress young beyond hers (Mary Bridget Davies, 35). Somehow, they meld into perfect harmony.

Manless and childless, Ms. Joplin emerged as the Earth Mother of Rock ’n’ Roll in three short but concentrated years of stardom, but she went surprisingly far and deep on that fast track—from the Summer of Love (1967), when she gave a breakthrough performance of “Ball and Chain” with Big Brother and the Holding Company at the Monterey International Pop Festival, to Oct. 4, 1970, the day the music stopped for her. She was the same age as Jimi Hendrix, who had OD-ed as well 16 days earlier.

Ms. Davies has no trouble boarding this fast-moving train, nailing Ms. Joplin’s gut-wrenching rasp the minute that she opens her mouth. She came ready to work.

“I was accidentally preparing for this role all my life, I think,” she told The Observer over a post-show drink (rum—and only one: “It’s become my catchphrase: To play Janis Joplin, you can’t live like Janis Joplin”). Her drink of choice: shakes.

The Joplin calling came early. By the time she was a teenager, having taken in the 1974 documentary, Janis: The Way She Was, she was making the Halloween rounds in Cleveland, where she grew up, as Joplin. In 2001, she trekked to New York to see Love, Janis, which had two singers and an actress in the lead role.

Along the way, there were some creative detours. Ms. Davies took up competitive dancing and a stagecraft program in Cleveland, worked as an actor in summer stock and improv comedy and sang soul and blues. “I wanted to do it all,” she said. “It is strange that all these little steps that I took—if you ball ’em up—make the perfect backdrop to play Janis. I was ready when the opportunity presented itself.”

Because her Joplin obsession was so pronounced, she had friends who would alert her if anything Joplin was stirring on the Rialto. When one spotted a casting call on for a new Joplin show that Mr. Johnson was bringing to Broadway, Ms. Davies emailed him immediately.  He wrote back that the title role had already been cast, but she was welcome to audition for understudy or backup.

“I said, ‘I don’t care. I’ll take whatever I can get,’ and I went in and auditioned and got the backup gig. I figured either the show was so great it would franchise or there’d be a moment for me to prove my merit and become Janis. I was willing to put in the work and be an alternate—I was O.K. with that—then it all fell in my lap.”

When Mr. Johnson saw her audition, he didn’t know what hit him. “Mary Bridget is a force of nature,” he told The Observer. “She walked into the New York audition and owned the room—and the role. I hired her as the understudy immediately. It’s the real show business fairy tale when the understudy goes on with a three-hour rehearsal and blows the roof off the joint and changes her life forever. She understands Janis from a deep, knowing place and grasped from the outset my book and concept of this event as ‘musical theater’ and not a rock event or a tribute show. We broke ground together with this piece of theater, and I believe it’s because this is the role that she was born to play.”

Ms. Davies professes to know little about the backstage machinations surrounding her sudden ascent from backup to star spot, and she is hesitant to ask, but the move itself is highly Joplin-esque, echoing the time the rock legend shifted from supporting Big Brother and the Holding Company and stepped into her own private spotlight.

To hear Ms. Davies tell it, her own story was Eve Harrington’s bloodless coup. The actress who originated this Joplin (and won strong notices at the start of the tour) simply walked up to her less than two weeks after she had joined the company and asked if she could go on for her. “I guess it was protocol or something, but I said, ‘Sure, if you want me to.’ I didn’t have enough time to get much of a rehearsal in. It was, literally, like the kiss on the forehead and the spank on the butt, and you’re on. It’s very still when you’re out there, though. You’re not thinking. You’re just feeling.

“It was all just a whirlwind. That was on Sunday. We were dark on Monday, and they called me at 2 p.m. and offered me the role. I thought they meant for Arena Stage, but they were, like, ‘No, tomorrow. You’re going to open the show.’ I said, ‘O.K.’”

As for the actress she replaced, “I don’t know what happened. She was a doll. I liked her. She told me, ‘Oh, my God! When I told my roommates who my understudy was, they were, like, ‘Oh, man,’ because they watched my videos on YouTube. She’d already seen me. I’d toured with Big Brother and the Holding Company since 2006.”

In five tours of Europe, she got her fill of Joplin tales from them—“stories nobody knows, like when they were in California recording ‘Shoot the Rose’ together, all these cool, behind-the-curtain stories.” All help her portrait of the Janis nobody knows.

“When you first think of Janis Joplin, it’s this biker, boot-stomping, loud-mouth chick, Southern Comfort, blah blah, and she killed herself on drugs—that’s the tabloids talking. There’s so much more to her, and that’s what we show.”

Where obsession leaves off and research begins is, and always was, a mystery to Ms. Davies. Bobby Neuwirth, who wrote the Joplin hit “Mercedes Benz,” told her the Joplin reading list included Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

“What I learned was how intelligent she was—and how funny. She came out on The Dick Cavett Show once with The Committee and did improv and was impeccable.”

Ms. Davies pretty much has the stage to herself six performances per week. Because of the vocal demands of the role, Alison Cusano will do the Wednesday and Saturday matinees until Oct. 14, when Kacee Clanton will take over that chore.

Broadway divvied up some major talent to double as Ms. Joplin’s backup and play her musical influences (Bessie Smith, Odetta, Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone): The Book of Mormon’s Taprena Michelle Augustine, Passing Strange’s De’Adre Aziza, Dreamgirls’ Nikki Kimbrough and The Color Purple’s NaTasha Yvette Williams, respectively.

The hardest thing for Ms. Davies to do is to keep from overdoing it. “I get so riled up in the song, and I feel so good—and then I realize, ‘Oh, wait! It’s Wednesday, and I’ve got five more shows to do.’ You gotta calibrate, because your body just gives it all away. She just takes over.”

There is a postscript to the expected repertoire, added after the show’s premiere and titled “I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven.” Right before his death, Jerry Ragovoy, who penned Joplin hits like “Piece of My Heart,” “Cry Baby,” “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” and “Get It While You Can,” caught a performance in Portland and went backstage with sheet music to a song he and the singer were working on at the time of her death. He pulled Mr. Johnson aside and said, “Here it is, if you want it.” It had gone unperformed and unrecorded till now.

At show’s end, Ms. Davies feels properly drained. “It takes a while to recover. You get that adrenaline spike, and that lasts a couple of hours. Then it’s a crash—and you get a great sleep. And then, you get up the next day and do it all over again.”

Cry, Cry Baby! As Janis Joplin, Mary Bridget Davies Gives Broadway a Piece of Her Heart