Ray Charles Live!
Having no preconceptions, one might expect a show titled Ray Charles Live! to be little more than a recreation of a Ray Charles concert. The fact, however, that the show has a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks gives one reason to hope that there's more to it. By intermission, however, one might find hope the show would just ditch the book and load up on more of its electric production numbers.
Ray Charles Live! is actually somewhat of a misnomer. The concept of the play is that Ray, now deceased, has decided to record one last album – a studio album that is a biography. And he is, as he puts it, "inviting folks from my life to sit in." So people who were part of Ray's life will be singing, even if the actual people in question never really sang. (Ray presents this to the audience as though the concept needs explaining. Isn't this what a musical is?) But, since the show presents itself in "album" form, Parks's book needa only to hit the highlights – one "track" after another – without bothering with transitions or even chronological order. Indeed, most scene changes are signified by Ray's recording engineer telling him that the last track sounded really good and asking which one he wants to do next.
There's nothing particularly wrong with putting an emphasis on the music. Indeed, Ray Charles Live boasts nearly 30 musical numbers, and when you're dealing with the songs that made Ray Charles famous, it's very hard to lose. Huge numbers – whether taking place in church, a night club, a concert stage or Carnegie Hall - deliver. Backed by an 11-piece band, and a 17-member ensemble - in exceptional period costumes by Paul Tazewell, and grooving to Kenneth L. Roberson's high energy choreography – these big performance numbers are the highlight of the show.
And there's just not enough of them. In an effort to be more than a mere concert musical, Ray Charles Live! often comes off as less than one. The big first-act closer of "Let the Good Times Roll" is interrupted for Ray's drug arrest. A soulful "Georgia On My Mind" is nearly criminally interrupted with some dialogue about Ray's experiences in Georgia. Book scenes aren't well integrated into the musical numbers; they end up as unwelcome distractions. And because the book is often short bits of narration, rather than a more natural interaction of characters, there's very little opportunity for character development anyway. (Indeed, of the entire company, only Angela Teek, as Ray's "road wife" Mary Ann, manages to pull off a show-long character arc.) To the extent the show does try to capture the real Ray Charles, warts and all, it undermines most of its realism with a forced sappy ending.
To be sure, there are moments when Ray Charles Live! makes full use of the theatrical form. When the three women in Ray's life come together to sing "I Can't Stop Loving You," it is a poignant moment as well as a damn fine rendition of the song. But there are few of these moments – most of the show is either/or. When Ray's mother responds to tragedy with "Drown in My Own Tears," Yvette Cason seems more concerned with the quality of her vocal than the pathos of the moment. Even Brandon Victor Dixon, as Ray, has a hard time sustaining the singer's signature mannerisms, and some of his acting seems wooden – clearly, he was cast because he can sing.
There is such an incredible amount of vocal talent in this production, and such brilliantly realized performance numbers, nearly all of the show's flaws could be forgiven if it traded some of its expositional scenes for, say, a three-song set as the finale. Because, ultimately, the best part about Ray Charles Live! is when it recreates Ray Charles live.
Ray Charles Live! runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through December 9, 2007. For information, see www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
Pasadena Playhouse – Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director; Brian Colburn, Managing director; Tom Ware, Producing Director – by special arrangement with Benjamin Productions, Baldwin Entertainment Group, joe Adams and Ray Charles Enterprises – presents Ray Charles Live! Book by Suzan-Lori Parks. Scenic Design Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design Paul Tazewell; Lighting Design Donald holder; Sound Design Carl Casella and Domonic Sack; Video Design Austin Switzer; Hair and Wig Design Charles G. LaPointe; Orchestrations by Harold Wheeler; Dance Arrangements by Zane Mark; Conductor Eric Butler; Casting Michael Donovan, C.S.A. and Telsey + Company, C.S.A.; Production Stage Manager Lurie Horns Pfeffer; Assistant Stage Manager Conwell Worthington III. Music Supervision and Direction; Vocal and Music Arrangements by Rahn Coleman; Choreography by Kenneth L. Roberson; Directed by Sheldon Epps.