The Record of A Life

Last night, we went to see the last musical in the Pasadena Playhouse 2006 season: “Ray Charles Live”. “Ray Charles Live” tells the life story of Ray Charles Robinson Jr., better known as Ray Charles. It does this around a central conceit similar to that used in the musical “Forever Plaid”: Ray Charles has returned to record, live, the album of his life telling his life story, with the actual people in his life involved. As a result, the show takes place in a recording studio milieu, with the recording engineer off to the side, and no real scenery save for projections and costumes. As such, the central focus of the show was the man and his piano, Mr. Ray Charles.

With a show such as this, where there is no new music and the plot (being a life story) is pre-ordained, the strength is in the casting. Make a mistake there, and the show falls flat on its face. In this case, the Pasadena Playhouse team did an excellent job. Ray Charles (as the adult) was played by Brandon Victor Dixon, a strong singer and piano player who became Charles. Excellently playing the adolescent Charles was Wilkie Ferguson, while the young boy Charles was played by Jeremiah Whitfield-Pearson. Della B, the wife of Ray Charles, was played by Nikki Renee Daniels, a remarkable singer. Mary Ann Fisher, one of the original Raelettes and a notable “road wife” was played by Angela Teek. The remaining Raelettes were played by Nraca, Meloney Collins, Sylvia Maccalla, and Sabrina Sloan. Ray Charles’ mother, Retha Robinson, was played by Yvette Cason, who we last saw at the playhouse in the musical “Sisterella”. The recording engineer for the session, Tom Dowd, was playeed by Matthew Benjamin. Ray’s long-time manager, Jeff Brown, was played by Harrison White, with his later manager, Joe Adams, played by Maceo Oliver. Ray’s long-time friend and Atlantic record executive Ahmet Ertegun was played by Daniel Tatar, who was in the Playhouse production of “Last 5 Years”. Rounding out the excellent cast in the ensemble, the Ray Charles band, or other small roles were Phillip Attmore, Aaron or Christopher Brown, Tara Cook, Dionne Figgins, Matthew Koehler, Leslie Stevens, Rocklin Thompson, and Ricke Vermont.

As I said: I thought the acting was great, although at a few moments it looked like dancers were just going through the motions. At other moments, you could see the actors were really getting into their roles and enjoying what they were doing. I also enjoyed the variety of shapes and sizes: the casting director was not afraid to cast some rounder women, and to put them into dancer’s outfits. I think that was a tribute to Charles: as he noted in the show, he loved all women, and being blind, focused on other attributes.

Where the show had problems was the central conceit, and the fault for that belongs with the book writer, Suzan-Lori Parks. I can understand why she chose the approach: she had to distinguish the musical from the movie biographic, “Ray”. But in doing so, the approach distanced you from the story and made it less real. It also led to the recording engineer character having to lead Charles on to tell the story, and that was like pulling teeth. I also think the second act dragged a little: one or two numbers could have been cut or shortened, and the audience’s attention would have held a bit better. I don’t know if these problems can be corrected before the show moves to Broadway, as promised.

Ray Charles Live was directed by Sheldon Epps, who is also the artistic director of the Playhouse. This is Sheldon’s 10th year as artistic director, and he has done a great job there. My only problem is that they seem to forget the Lars Hansen era as A.D. and the excellent programs produced then. The production was choreographed by Kenneth L. Roberson, with musical supervision by Rahn Coleman, scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez, costumes by Paul Tazewell, lighting by Donald Holder, sound by Carl Casella, hair by Charles G. LaPointe, video by Austin Switzer, and orchestrations by Harold Wheeler. The on-stage band was conducted by Eric “Cayenne” Butler, with Louahn Lowe (Keyboard I), Joel Scott (Keyboard II), Jack Allen (Guitar), Hilliard Wilson (Bass), Raymond Pounds (Drums), Fernando Pullam and Nolan Shaheed (Trumpets), Fred Jackson and Chalres Owen (Saxophones), and Garnett Brown on Trombone.

The production has been extended, and continues through December 23rd.

The Pasadena Playhouse has announced its 2008 season, and many of my predictions were borne out. The season consists of “Orson’s Shadow” by Austin Pendleton; “Mask”, a musical written by Anna Hamilton Phelan with music and lyrics by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil; “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck; “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” by George Bernard Shaw; “Vanities” by Jack Heifner with music and lyrics by David Kirshenbaum and directed by Judith Ivey; and a surprise production to be announced.

For us, what’s next is a concert by legendary folk musician Tom Paxton at McCabes on 12/2 @ 7:30pm (that’s tonight!). Following this is the highly anticipated “The Stinky Cheese Man And Other Fairly Stupid Tales” at Nobel Middle School on 12/6 @ 7pm, 12/7 @ 7pm, and 12/8 @ 5pm — tickets for this donation-supported production are available at the door. On 1/5 at 2:00pm, we’re squeezing in a production (between a Bat Mitzvah service and a Bat Mitzvah reception [no, not nsshere’s]) of “The Color Purple” at the Ahmanson Theatre, followed on 1/12 by “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at Cabrillo Music Theatre.