Any fan of R&B should shake a tail feather towards the Pasadena Playhouse for Ray Charles Live!, a rousing tribute to the man who “mixed Sunday morning with Saturday night” that features a portrayal of Charles by Brandon Victor Dixon as awe-striking as Jamie Foxx’s 2004 Oscar-winning turn.
The conceit of the musical is that Charles has returned from the great beyond to cut one last album, a live tribute to his life, with all his friends and family members. The tracks reminisce on his good times and probe into his tough times. Charles reveals his multiple vices, including drugs, womanizing, and his cruelty towards those he loves. Ray introduces us to his younger self (Wilkie Ferguson), to Della B (Nikki Renee Daniels), the love of his life, to Mary Ann Fisher (the sexy Angela Teek), his possessive “wife” on the road, his mother, Retha (Yvette Cason), and the other people who shaped his career and life.
Sewing together Charles’ extensive catalogue, director Sheldon Epps smartly uses both famous songs like “Hit The Road, Jack” and “You Don’t Know Me” and finds lesser-known numbers that appear to be written particularly for the situations depicted, most aptly, “Drown In My Own Tears,” a mournful song for Ray’s mother after her son George drowns. The musical evolution also illustrates how early influences turned Charles into the artist he became, as found in “What Kind Of Man Is This,” first sung by his mother at a church revival and later by a blues singer at a gin joint.
Musically, this show does not hit a single sour note. The orchestra — which is located on stage — sounds exquisite, and the arrangements by Rahn Coleman are bouncy. Choreographer Kenneth L. Roberson puts the spry dancers through hip moves that enhance the music. The hairstyles by Charles G. Lapointe and costumes by Paul Tazewell suck the audience into the mood of the 1950s and 60s with sassy hair bobs, gold lame skirts and frisky showgirl outfits. Donald Holder brings the flashy light designs common in Vegas stage shows to the Playhouse. Riccardo Hernandez’s clever sets utilize scrims to superimpose patterns of pastels for Charles’ meeting with Della B, musical notes, and other appropriate images.
The show’s one failing is its book, by Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks, which doesn’t delve deep enough into the characters. Charles’ relationship with Della B is particularly sketchy; he meets her on a folding chair, exchanges verbal spars, sings a song and voila, they’re married and separated by tours and road affairs. They argue but it’s never clear why they’re soul mates. The script also shows Charles’ dependence on drugs, but doesn’t explain why a man who survived the loss of his mother, his brother, and his sight, would succumb to drugs.
On the plus side, the book can be applauded for demonstrating Charles as a man of contradictions; someone who would easily screw over those who helped him get to the top, and yet would get himself banned from an entire state for standing up against racism.
Above all, there is a masterful performance by Dixon (who originated the role of Harpo in The Color Purple), who perfectly captures Charles’ inflections and mannerisms. Daniels brings multiple layers to Della B with her peaceful voice and loving demeanor, and Cason brings down the house with her big number, getting the kind of stirring response one finds at a revival house.