Pumpin' Up the Volume with
The setting is a nightclub (represented by one table and a small bar) with a large bandstand. The proscenium is surrounded on three sides by scenic piano keys. Out of the clear blue, a curtain on which there is a drawing of a slum neighborhood street, is dropped in front of the band and a bit of wire fencing is wheeled in on each side. About four songs, which could have easily fit in the club setting, are sung, the curtain and wire fencing are removed, and we are returned to the nightclub for the remainder of the evening. There does not appear to be any coherent plan for this presentation. After a few early words lauding "The Genius," as Ray Charles was known, several songs are sung. Which, if any, did Charles write? You won't find out here. The presentation is not chronological (although there is some suggestion that it is), and there is precious little thematic unity.
Well, after two songs are sung in the slum setting, we get some biographical material which includes the information that Charles made a living for a time singing Nat "King" Cole songs. We then hear "Route 66" and a couple of other Cole songs. From time to time thereafter, we are told that Charles often made unique arrangements revivifying the music of others (certainly true), that he crossed and combined accepted musical category boundaries (certainly true), that he overcame daunting problems such as poverty, blindness by the age of eight, drug addiction and racial discrimination (certainly true) and that he achieved overarching success (most certainly true). And, from time to time, we are told that the cast loves the music of Ray Charles and that we should give Ray a hand.
For the most part, we are dependent upon our own musical knowledge to differentiate between those songs which Charles performed, those which he wrote and those which he arranged. One exception is when we are told that he put the blues into country music followed by a medley of country and western songs beginning with "Your Cheatin' Heart." Other exceptions include John Lennon's cloying "Imagine" and a third is "America the Beautiful". Actually, my reading of the song stack is that only a very small fraction of the songs here could have been written by Charles. There is nothing wrong with this, as Charles certainly put a unique stamp on many of them. However, the manner in which this is muddied, including the lack of any program credits for music and lyrics, exemplifies the slipshod and disrespectful treatment of the music. It may be obvious to most of us that "Minnie the Moocher" and "Makin' Whoopee" were standards with classic interpretations long before Ray Charles sang them, but you would never know it from this presentation.
The sound balance fluctuates wildly. For the most part, whether the music or lyrics predominate, the vocals are competing with the muffled wall of noise blasting from what looks like two piles of eight vertically shaped speakers, one on each side of the stage (the sound is essentially as deafening in the rear of the auditorium as it is in about the tenth row).
Listening to old Ray Charles records or to the beautifully mastered soundtrack of the DVD of the movie Ray, featuring his glorious piano solos (which are missing or buried in this show), reveals even to the tinniest ear just how wrong the musical presentation has gone here.
Rhythmic applause is repeatedly solicited. For the singing of "Shake a Tail Feather," the audience is implored to stand and shake in place. Responsive singing ("oh, oh ... oh, oh") is sought once again after "Minnie," where it is obligatory. The audience again is implored to stand a second time as onstage dancers come up the aisle and dance with audience members during the "What'd I Say" act two finale, insuring a standing ovation.
There are ten hard working dancers. They appear to be skilled, but the anemic choreography is mostly posturing, ballroom standard, or break. For "Fever," choreographer-director Gary Lloyd surrounds singer Truth Hurts with four male dancers in a complete Fosse rip off. The dancers' best number is a Charleston-like affair to the tune of "Bye, Bye Love" at the end of the first act. However, before the curtain comes down Lloyd again has the dancers posturing.
The six principals (singers) are talented, and during the quieter band intervals get some opportunities to demonstrate this. None of the men have The Genius's gritty, passionate vocal style. The dapper Chris Murrell nicely leads the audience to "hi-de-ho" with his "Minnie the Moocher." Terrence D. Forsythe moves like a dancer, and nicely sings a smooth but inflectionally Ray Charles-like "Georgia on My Mind." Mike Davis performs a charming "Makin' Whoopee." Note that while Davis is singing stage left, a male and female are performing a sensual pas de deux stage right which is totally at odds with the gentle humor of the song and maddeningly distracting.
Among the women, Truth Hurts excels on "The Long and Winding Road." Regi Brown provides the show's best solo with her rendition of "You Don't Know Me." Nedgra Culp is the style of big singer who never gets the opportunity not to have to battle the wall of noise. However, Culp is clearly a talented singer and performer.
The great Ray Charles died in 2004 at the age of the age of 74 with achievements that misguided assemblages of his work such as I Can't Stop Loving Up: The Music of Ray Charles cannot tarnish.
I Can't Stop Loving You: The Music of Ray Charles continues performances through Sunday, April 8, 2007 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) (Prudential Hall), One Center Street, Newark, NJ, 07105. Box Office: 888-466-5722; online: www.njpac.org/
I Can't Stop Loving You: The Music of Ray Charles, directed and choreographed by Gary Lloyd
Vocalists: Regi Brown, Nedgra Culp, Mike Davis, Terrence D. Forsythe, Truth Hurts, Chris Murrell/ Dancers: Paul Omasta (Dance Captain), Michelle Cornelius, Jo Dyce, Gemma Lawrence, Kristina MacMillan, Lisa Matthews, Greg McPherson, Rachel Muldoon, Nikki Mullins, Darren Murphy, Craig Williams