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theatre review

A Night with Janis Joplin, a Broadway musical on the sixties-era rocker, is short on her history and long on the music.Joan Marcus

Someone who looked and sounded very much like Janis Joplin sang dauntingly and often rapped dizzily about loneliness at the Panasonic Theatre on Wednesday. An icon was channelled and an era's eccentric fashion choices were recalled. Cosmic hippie-rock roared and bell-bottom blues rained. All that was missing was Leonard Cohen and an unmade Chelsea Hotel bed.

Mary Bridget Davies is Joplin – the unmistakable one; the husky-voiced pleader – in a soul-shine concert called A Night with Janis Joplin. But there's jive to the title – this isn't simply Whitey Sings the Blues. Joplin never liked to be alone, so the stage was shared with the singer's inspirations: a group of female cast members who took no back seats in their profound musical portrayals of Bessie Smith, the Chantels, Nina Simone, Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Odetta.

This is Joplin's dream revue, and it's a doozy.

As a Broadway musical, one might have expected more in way of Joplin's story. A Southern Comfort-sipping Davies does drawl some bio (mostly about her beginnings in Port Arthur, Tex., and her escape to San Francisco), but the show is short on her history and long on the music.

And what a show, really. Davies howled Ball and Chain. She watched the dead-ringer Odetta do Down on Me and then dialled up her own psychedelic freak-out of the same song. The eight-piece band behind her were no chumps either. Songs were interspersed with Joplin's musings on the blues – existential thoughts with a strong feminist slant. Although Joplin might have been inspired by someone such as Otis Redding, she identified with the sisters. But anyone who ever heard her sing A Woman Left Lonely already knew that.

No doubt the show is catnip for the oldies, and while the velvets were straight outta Haight-Ashbury, any patchouli-scented sentimentality wasn't happening. And thank God there was no sixties newsreel footage lousing up the grooves. Context was not required – Joplin's heaviness was of no period.

Near the end, Joplin's heroes exited the stage, leaving the little girl blue alone with her band and her audience. The singer told about signing letters to her male lovers with "you're the one," but that she'd come to the empowering realization that she was the one, or that we, the audience, was the one.

Then she roared through a show-stopping I'm Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven with her backup-singing Joplinaires. A happy encore of Mercedes Benz followed, but by that point, Joplin was so much as gone.

A Night with Janis Joplin runs until Feb. 21 at the Panasonic Theatre in Toronto (mirvish.com).