NEW YORK (CBS SF/AP) – Mary Bridget Davies is part singer, part actress and part spirit conjurer.
The bubbly performer is uncanny at capturing the look and sound of the late Janis Joplin in a new Broadway show highlighting the iconic blues singer.
“I feel a responsibility to be as honest and authentic as possible,” says Davies, who has spent years singing Joplin songs in concert and onstage. “You can’t fake the funk. You can’t fake Janis.”
Davies and her “A Night With Janis Joplin,” which opens Thursday, are part of a new wave of musicals featuring female singer-songwriters, a list that includes a Carole King musical making its way to Broadway, a Billie Holiday show now off-Broadway and musicals planned on Diane Warren and Patsy Cline. It all might signal the theatrical equivalent of ladies’ night.
“I kind of feel like people are beginning to feel the need for nurturing figures and the feminine side of life,” says Dee Dee Bridgewater, the Grammy- and Tony-winning actress who plays Holiday in “Lady Day” at the Little Shubert Theatre.
Bridgewater channels the blues legend during a comeback attempt in the years before her 1959 death. The show features 25 Holiday standards, including “Good Morning Heartache,” “Strange Fruit,” “My Man” and “God Bless the Child.”
“This isn’t an imitation,” Bridgewater warns, though when the show was on in London years ago she would get fan letters addressed to Holiday. “I’d open it up and it would read, `Dear Billie, I sure enjoyed your show last night.'”
The new interest in female singers and songwriters may be a coincidence but it comes as a refreshing change from all the testosterone in behind-the-music shows such as “Million Dollar Quartet,” “Jersey Boys” and Berry Gordy’s “Motown, the Musical.”
On tap is “Always… Patsy Cline,” which tells of the friendship between Cline and a devoted fan. The show starring “American Idol” finalist Crystal Bowersox will feature almost 30 classic songs from the Cline songbook. The music of award-winning Warren, writer of hits such as “Unbreak My Heart” and “If I Could Turn Back Time,” is being adapted for the Broadway stage under the guidance of Dede Harris Productions.
Other recent shows that showcased female singer-songwriters include “Forever Dusty” about Dusty Springfield that played off-Broadway last year and “Baby It’s You!” a 2011 jukebox musical on Broadway about Florence Greenberg, who managed the careers of several key figures in early rock `n’ roll.
Next month, Broadway sees the arrival of “Beautiful – the Carole King Musical,” which charts King’s life from age 16 to being part of a hit songwriting team with her husband, Gerry Goffin, and ends with the release of her groundbreaking solo album “Tapestry.”
Playwright Douglas McGrath set King’s music to the story of her relationship with her husband and fellow writers and best friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. It also shines a light on a seismic shift in the music business when songwriters began writing for themselves and not just others.
Tony-nominated Jessie Mueller stars in “Beautiful – the Carole King Musical,” currently playing at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco through October 20. The wonderful score includes the songs “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman.”
“Unlike a lot of pop music, which can be fun but is kind of like a potato chip – it’s delightful and then you forget about it – in Carole and Gerry’s music and certainly in Barry and Cynthia’s music, too, there’s such a depth of feeling that it doesn’t feel like pop music,” McGrath says. “I think that’s why it’s lasted.”
McGrath says it’s fun to listen to the audience do double takes upon hearing hit after hit, whispering to their seatmates in disbelief: “She wrote that, too?” That sentiment seems to be driving all the new shows about singer-songwriters: remind and educate a new generation.
Bridgewater, who has recorded songs made famous by Ella Fitzgerald and Horace Silver, is hoping to reintroduce or even introduce her audience to the remarkable Holiday.
“I feel it’s very important that people leave with a fuller sense of who this woman actually was,” the singer says. “I am conscious of the fact that I’m part of a dying breed. So I really try to make the music more accessible to young people.”
That’s a sentiment shared by Davies, who wants to remind folks about Joplin and her hits such as “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Piece of My Heart” and “Mercedes Benz.” “Any way we can get this music back in the mainstream is so important,” she says.
Of course, some in the audience have their own selfish reasons to want these shows. Take Laura Joplin, Janis’ sister, a producer of “A Night With Janis Joplin.”
“To have the ability to have a part of her back – and to celebrate with so many people – that’s a real gift,” says Joplin. “It’s as though I get to know her anew every time.”
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