EmptyPasadena Playhouse, Pasadena
Through Dec. 9
Ray Charles had a voice, look, sound and joyful smile that stamped him as an original. The sound was unlike any other, a raw, low moan -- almost a craving -- that began in the deepest, darkest part of Georgia and finished in whatever state Charles happened to prefer. There was pain in that moan, but also a kind of ecstasy that made you know, at least in the moment, that pain was being transcended. In a way, this was the mission of Charles' music and probably what his audience found irresistible.
"Ray Charles Live!" is a new musical about this one-of-a-kind man and performer that manages to get Charles about as wrong as it's possible to get him. Directed by Sheldon Epps and sporting a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks, the show is a blunder of near-epic proportions. How is it possible, you begin to wonder as the evening wears on, to present a piece about an artist this unique that has you longing to hear the backup singers instead of the star?
Part of the problem is that Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Charles, doesn't have the voice, look, sound or smile to bring the character to life. Nor does he have the acting chops to make us think he's doing it. Where Charles was a force of nature -- energizing a room just by walking into it -- Dixon suggests a bland, earnest insurance salesman trying to sell us a policy we don't want. There is no joy here, no ecstasy, no life force surging through a body that can't quite contain it and spilling over into everything Charles touched or sang.
Nor is there any of the raw sexuality that oozed from every pore of Charles' rambunctious body and found its way into nearly all of his songs, not to mention his complicated love life. A scene in which Charles briefly talks about sex is so lacking in pungency, vigor and male sensibility that it almost plays like unintended irony. Parks really needs to do some more research on the subject. Coming on the heels of Jamie Foxx's brilliant portrayal of Charles in the film "Ray," one can't help but feel sorry for Dixon and the predicament he finds himself in.
The show's biggest problem, however, is Parks' book, which also is partly responsible for some of Dixon's problems. Parks has turned Charles into the narrator of his own life, a role that forces him to explain, analyze and justify nearly everything that has happened to him since age 5. The setup is that Charles is making one last album in the studio in which the important people and events that have shaped his life will be recorded. As a result of this unfortunate device, a new Ray Charles is born onstage -- Charles the thoughtful, searching, troubled artist and man trying to come to terms with the riddle of his life. This is not the Charles we know, nor is this an interesting, believable character; the sum and substance of Charles' life is in his music, not his musing.
Dixon has no choice but to go along with this concocted character, speaking in a polished, articulate voice as though he's university-trained (which he is) and ready to do Shakespeare (which he has). His diction might bring Paul Robeson to life, but not Ray Charles.
The rest of the large cast is mostly all that it should be, and Riccardo Hernandez's intricate set design and Donald Holder's lighting are dazzling. Nikki Renee Daniels is touching as Della B, Charles' loyal, long-suffering wife. Angela Teek and Sabrina Sloan respectively sparkle as Mary Ann Fisher and Margie Hendricks, Charles' two competing main squeezes on the road. The stylish dancing and sharp costumes are courtesy of Kenneth L. Roberson and Paul Tazewell, respectively. Most of what we saw in the movie also is here, though much of it plays like bad melodrama in this stage version. This is not the right one, baby.
RAY CHARLES LIVE!
Presented by Benjamin Prods., Baldwin Entertainment Group, Joe Adams and Ray Charles Enterprises
Book: Suzan-Lori Parks
Director: Sheldon Epps
Choreographer: Kenneth L. Roberson
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell
Sound designers: Carl Casella, Domonic Sack
Video designer: Austin Switzer
Music supervision and direction, vocal and music arrangements: Rahn Coleman
Orchestrations: Harold Wheeler
Dance arrangements: Zane Mark
Ray Charles: Brandon Victor Dixon
Della B: Nikki Renee Daniels
Margie Hendricks: Sabrina Sloan
Mary Ann Fisher: Angela Teek
Young RC: Wilkie Ferguson
Jeff Brown: Harrison White
Ahmet Ertegun: Daniel Tatar
Joe Adams: Maceo Oliver
Quincy Jones: Phillip Attmore
Lucky Millinder: Ricke Vermont
Raeletts: NRaca, Meloney Collins, Sylvia MacCalla, Sabrina Sloan, Angela Teek
Little Ray: Jeremiah Whitfield-Pearson
Little George: Aaron Brown, Christopher Brown