Mary Bridget Davies under the marquee at Port Chester’s Capitol Theatre, where, in 1970, Janis Joplin wrote her hit song, “Mercedes Benz.” Davies plays Joplin in “A Night with Janis Joplin” on Broadway. Photos by Joe Larese/The Journal News
Before she set foot in The Capitol Theatre, Mary Bridget Davies could feel the history of Port Chester’s storied rock ’n’ roll hall.
“Instantly, just being under the marquee, I was like ‘Lots of stuff has happened here,’” the star of Broadway’s “A Night with Janis Joplin” said last week.
Yes, lots of stuff.
Back in its ’70s heyday, The Cap hosted rock royalty. In the year since its rebirth last September, The Capitol has presented nearly 150 concerts — by performers who were drawn to Port Chester, in part, by that history.
“When we describe The Capitol Theatre to people, we talk about the people that helped make it what it is,” owner Peter Shapiro said. “I usually say Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones. To have a theater that’s here today that Janis played at, where she wrote ‘Mercedes Benz,’ when musicians come they almost always say something about feeling the history, feeling the vibe.”
That vibe is what Davies responded to when she arrived in Port Chester, by chauffeured Chevy Suburban, not Mercedes Benz.
Capitol Theatre owner Peter Shapiro points to Mary Bridget Davies as she points to a picture of Janis Joplin on the wallpaper in the theater’s lobby.
The 35-year-old Cleveland native knows about vibes. She’s creating them six nights a week, channeling Joplin at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre in “A Night with Janis Joplin.” (The show is so vocally demanding, Davies’ alternates perform at the Wednesday and Saturday matinees.)
The two-act biographical musical — produced, in part, by Daniel Chilewich of Armonk and Todd Gershwin of Purchase with the blessing of Joplin’s family — goes light on the star’s drug and alcohol use and death and heavy on the musical influences that made the raspy, wild-haired native of Port Arthur, Texas, a rock icon: Odetta, Etta James, Bessie Smith, Nina Simon and Aretha Franklin.
On stage at the Lyceum, Davies hears these women and then filters their blues through Joplin’s trademark rasp, which Davies has mastered to a T, along with the singer’s signature hair flip. The actress, who more closely resembles TV chef Rachael Ray than Joplin, uncannily delivers nearly two dozen Joplin classics, from “Cry Baby” and “Piece of My Heart” to “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Mercedes Benz.”
The lore behind that last song is what put Davies in that Suburban and delivered her to The Capitol.
On Aug. 8, 1970, Joplin play two shows in Port Chester.
Tom Bailey, the theater’s general manager and resident historian, explained that — steps from The Capitol’s stage door — on Broad Street, stands a restaurant called Bambu that, in the ’70s, was a bar called Vahsen’s.
“It’s only about 30 yards from the stage door, so artists would frequently pop over between sets,” Bailey said. “On that fateful night, Aug. 8, 1970, Janis came in here and she and her friends wrote the song ‘Mercedes Benz’ on a cocktail napkin. And then she went back to The Cap and sang it for the first time and only one other time after that.”
On Oct. 1, 1970, Joplin went into a Los Angeles recording studio and recorded “Mercedes Benz.” On Oct. 4, she died of an overdose at age 27.
Mary Bridget Davies in the lobby at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester.
At 35, Davies is eight years older than Joplin was when she died. She started out a theater kid in Cleveland — doing “Oliver!” and “Sweeney Todd” and “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940”— and studying all kinds of dance: tap, jazz, pop, ballet. In high school, she took a turn to rock ’n’ roll. Her Broadway debut is a mix of theater and rock.
Being on Broadway takes getting used to, says Davies, who is still getting used to rubbing elbows with stars.
“There’s a line in ‘Dirty Dancing,’ when (Baby) gets into the cool, after-hours dance club, and they ask her how she got in and she says ‘I carried a watermelon.’ That’s how I felt at the Broadway Flea Market, sitting there with Cherry Jones and Laura Benanti and Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff and Patrick Page and Bernadette Peters. And I was like ‘I carried a watermelon’ because I’m the new kid and it’s all fascinating and flattering.’”
Davies said the role — which she first played in Cleveland and then took to Washington, D.C.’s Arena stage before coming to the Lyceum — sometimes takes her to unexpected places.
“Last night, when I sang ‘Cry Baby,’ I got to the end and I turned to the band and we were all giggling,” she said. “I was flopping and wailing and holding the mike all the way down and bending all the way over and exerting all the energy out of my body. And that’s half-way through the second act. That’s not the end, but I just couldn’t help it. Sometimes, Janis is like a little imp, who jumps in and starts messing with my gears.”
She said she finds Janis creeping into her life. She says “man” a lot more at the ends of sentences than she used to.
“To the point where my boyfriend’s like ‘I’m not ‘man’! Don’ ‘man’ me!’” she said with a laugh.
‘A Night with Janis Joplin’ Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., between Sixth and Seventh avenues. $49 to $140. 212-239-6200. www.telecharge.com. www.anightwithjanisjoplin.com.
The Capitol Theatre, 149 Westchester Ave., Port Chester. thecapitoltheatre.com. 914-937-4126. Phil Lesh and Friends (Oct. 31 through Nov. 3); The B-52s (Nov. 9); Elvis Costello Solo (Nov. 11 and 12); Skrillex Fall Club Tour (Nov. 13); Jonny Lang (Nov. 16).