The Man Behind ‘One Night With Janis’: Randy Johnson

Director Randy Johnson | Arena Stage

               Randy Johnson is often described as a director, but this is something like calling a chef a cook. Creator isn’t too big a word to use for what Johnson does—conceiver, producer,  director, writer, and really big idea guy could go, too, along with artist.

               He’s the guy that’s responsible for bring the legendary blues-rock singer Janis Joplin—and an era—back to us in her most vivid incarnation in “One Night With Janis,” a kind of musical trek and blast of soulful resurrection that was a major highlight for Arena Stage last fall—so much so that it’s coming back June 21 and running through Aug.11 for a good chunk of the summer.

               “I feel like it’s a collaboration with Janis,” said Johnson, who’s worked with, or done productions and shows on the likes of Patsy Cline, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, Conway Twitty, and—yes—Mike Tyson—during a phone interview.  “In a way, of course, that’s exactly what it is because I’ve worked closely with her surviving siblings, her sister Laura and her brother Michael.”

               Mary Bridget Davies will be back to perform as Janis in a journey through her life that embraces her high spirits, without concentrating too much on the darker side of her life, especially her death from an accidental heroin overdose in 1970.

               “I think there are a lot of things out there about Janis that are not true,” Johnson said. “She did not commit suicide, for one thing.  I think she had a lot of pain in her life—that’s true enough—but she was also an incredibly talented, gifted young woman.  Who knows what she could have been had she lived? I think about that sometimes. I see her as a kind of inspiration for female singers, a kind of mentor by example in her terms of her music.”

               The show is more than a greatest-hit night, it’s an out-and-out revelry in the Joplin performance persona, backed up in a setting and by a band that resonates Haight Ashbury in the 1960s, the Fillmore and Avalon San Francisco rock palaces.  Joplin’s music is reflected in her roots, particularly African American blues, jazz and soul music, as embodied by singers like Billie Holiday, Big Mama Thornton and Aretha Franklin, all performed by the incomparable Sabrina Elayne Carten.

               It’s a celebration, almost a super-fans’ tribute, and Johnson is an unabashed admirer.  “When I was a kid, I loved to listen to Gershwin’s ‘Summertime,’ ” he said. “The voice I heard was Janis Joplin’s. I wanted to make sure we did justice to Janice by working closely with the family.  Michael and Lorna worked with me every step of the way.  Michael said to me on opening night that he thought he was back at the Monterey Pop concert.”

               Opening night last year at Arena was a spooky, exhilarating experience for this writer—sitting in front of me were the Joplin siblings—the brother clearly into it, the sister thoughtful and quiet, while Johnson sat nearby along with Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith. The audience seemed transported by Davies and her performance, back to the days and night of “Piece of My Heart,” “Ball and Chain” and “Me and Bobby McGee.”. 

               “She had a natural gift,”  Johnson said of Joplin.  “She reveled in the love she got from audience, but she  was a pure singer—people sometimes forget that until you hear her go through all the highs and lows of “Ball and Chain.”  There’s nobody who can sing like that today.  The whole business has changed, how music is delivered and consumed,  YouTube, marketing, all of it.  I was too young to see her perform, but I think the experience with “One Night” comes pretty close.”

               Johnson, as a producer, creator, director, point of origin, is a one-of-a-kind guy.  “We’re not talking about traditional plays,” he said.  “Over time, I’ve come to see myself as a stage biographer.”

               In addition to “One Night With Janis,” he has staged, organized or imagined on a grand scale.  If there is a common vein that runs through his work, it’s a kind of intense effort to provide emotional punch, spectacle,  a live experience that’s meant to be unforgettable.  What he creates is a total package.

               Johnson was the original producer for “Always Patsy Cline,” a megahit on the life and times of the queen of the broken-heart country ballad who died in a plane crash.  The original show opened a two-year run in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Old Opry. Johnson’s tastes run to the original as well as the popular: witness “The Wildest—The Music of Louis Prima and Keelly Smith,” which still tours internationally.  Smith to her fans was an underrated singer and song interpreter (“I Wish You Love”).

               Johnson co-conceived and directed the historic “Elvis the Concert,” a production which put Elvis (on video) together with his old band, singers and musical director in a virtual interactive concert at Radio City Music Hall.

               At the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in 2012, Johnson directed and co-wrote “Mike Tyson—The Undisputed Truth,” starring the man himself.  “I think people misunderstand him,” Johnson said. “He’s charming, funny and a magnetic presence.”

               Molly Smith is a big fan of Johnson. “Randy Johnson is a true theater artist,” she has said, “What sets him apart from others is that he is that rare breed of visionary director writer truly in a league all his own.”

               “I love working with Molly and Arena Stage,” Johnson said. “I’m doing ‘Smokey Joe’s Café” for Arena in the upcoming season.”

               Meanwhile, there will be Mary Bridget Davies and Janis Joplin, wailing “take another little piece of my heart now, baby, if it makes you feel good.”

“One Night With Janis runs” through Aug. 11 at Arena Stage.

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