THE inconceivable is happening in Pasadena, a feat that shouldn’t be possible, one that defies all logic and common sense. The glorious music of Ray Charles, a singer and songwriter of fearsome originality, is made to seem square, dull and suburban, like one of those embarrassing PBS specials celebrating the groovy sounds of yesteryear.
In “Ray Charles Live! A New Musical,” the blandly commercial biographical show that opened Friday at the Pasadena Playhouse, homage turns to hokum as swiftly as the piano dies down on the opening number and the setup of Suzan-Lori Parks’ paint-by-numbers book is introduced.
Ray (Brandon Victor Dixon) has decided to put together one last live recording. “I’ll be laying down tracks from the book of my life,” he tells us. “We’ll play the hits, we’ll visit the high points, and we won’t leave out the lows, either. This live album is gonna have wine, women and song.”
And that’s not all! Ray enthusiastically explains that there will be some special guests performing with him. “Some passed on, some still living, but all of them, folks from my life, are gonna sing on this album. Not a bad concept, huh?”
Well, actually, it couldn’t be more predictable. In truth, the book makes “Jersey Boys,” the Broadway blockbuster about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, seem like a miracle of dramaturgical sophistication. It takes an artist as unconventionally genre-busting as Charles and presents his story in a manner that’s as superficial and cliche-ridden as a TV movie.
We’re given snapshots, in other words, of what we already know: Once again we’re reminded of how a childhood marked by poverty, the death of a brother and blindness paved the way for heroin addiction, compulsive womanizing and paranoid mistrust and mistreatment of friends, family and business associates. And we see how recovery, prompted by the threat of jail time, allows him to grow into a legend.
When word got round that Parks was working with Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps on a show featuring songs written and associated with Charles, I held out hope that the jukebox musical, normally a clunky vehicle of mercenary nostalgia, was about to get an injection of poetry.
Parks, who earned a Pulitzer Prize for “Topdog/Underdog,” is one of the most radically innovative playwrights of her generation.
Yet “Ray Charles Live!” is no more adventurous than “All Shook Up,” “Lennon” or any of the other recent titles that have tried to draw baby boomers to the theater with little more than golden-oldies bait.
Baldly designed to rake in the dough, this latest jukebox effort provides less pleasure than one has come to meagerly expect from the form -- even with a catalog that can more than hold its own against any pop-chart icon’s.
But then one of the unique problems this musical faces is that unlike, say, Elvis Presley or John Lennon, Charles is truly inimitable. You can sketch him, but you can’t capture his performing soul. It’s too soulfully distinctive, a gift as personal as fingerprints.
Jeremiah Whitfield-Pearson and Wilkie Ferguson appear as younger versions of the character, but it’s Dixon who’s our main Ray. Rocking his head back and forth behind the piano, he offers decent enough covers of the hits. But he’s about as electrifying a presence as your standard-issue nightclub singer, and his acting, although certainly competent, doesn’t reveal much beyond the basic outline of the man.
It’s hard to take in this new musical without acknowledging the shadow cast by Taylor Hackford’s 2004 film. In taking a closer look at the movie “Ray” to see how Jamie Foxx handled the challenge that won him an Oscar, one finds a portrayal that is as much an interpretation as an impersonation. The actor, grittily conveying a deep sense of connection, taps into his own fiercely lived-in self to illuminate another’s.
Nothing of the kind is on display here. And so when our protagonist confides, “Yeah, I made a big name for myself, but I didn’t let nobody get to know the real Ray Charles,” it registers less as a profound psychological revelation than as an admission of dramatic failure.
Epps’ staging, clearly indebted to “Jersey Boys,” situates the action in a space that’s part recording studio, part Vegas-style concert venue.
In a blink, Donald Holder’s sizzling lighting design goes into full effect on Riccardo Hernandez’s set, and we’re supposed to be having the time of our lives.
Yes, there are a number of terrific female vocalists in the cast. Nikki Renee Daniels as Ray’s long-suffering wife, Della B, has a lyrical sweetness. Angela Teek, who plays Ray’s mistress Mary Ann, bawdily clarifies the reason Charles wrote a song about her. And Yvette Cason as Ray’s mother shows where her son learned about the empowering force of the blues.
If you can overlook Kenneth L. Roberson’s choreography (arms outstretched, snap, turn), you might even enjoy the backup accompaniment of the Raeletts, particularly NRaca, a petite dynamo with a powerhouse voice.
Too bad Rahn Coleman’s musical arrangements, performed by a live orchestra, are so lackluster. Perhaps this accounts for why, even though there were many songs I missed hearing, the lengthy list of numbers seemed wearying, an iPod shuffling interminably.
Any doubt about whether these classics can be renewed by fresh approaches can be cleared up by listening to Shirley Horn’s subtly sublime “Light Out of Darkness (a tribute to Ray Charles).” Horn, like Foxx, succeeds by making her appreciation transcendently personal.
Ray Charles may have sold out from time to time during his later years, singing for both Coca-Cola and Pepsi, but there was never any doubt about the depth of his artistry. His genius should have inspired a work of theatrical art, not kitsch.
The saddest thing of all is that Parks, had she stayed true to her talent, would have been just the one for the job.
‘Ray Charles Live!’
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Drive, Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Dec. 9
Price: $75 to $100
Contact: (626) 356-7529
Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes