Anatomizing a pop star’s life through his catalog of No. 1 hits worked for Frankie Valli, and it works in “Ray Charles Live!” the world premiere musical bio helmed by Sheldon Epps at the Pasadena Playhouse. With Georgia on its mind but “Jersey Boys” as its model, the show contextually weaves the hit songs into a compelling portrait of the complex entertainer, quickly dispelling any sense we’ve already seen it all in the movie “Ray.” With some tightening and choreographic fine-tuning, this tuner’s commercial prospects look bright.
Highly presentational conceit is that Brother Ray (Brandon Victor Dixon) has returned from the dead to record one last album, this one a biographical overview departing from strict chronology and pulling no punches. (The 2004 film is explicitly evoked as if to say, “We’re going further.”) Ray lacks Valli’s three other Seasons to embellish and contradict his tales, so librettist Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog/Underdog”) brings on colleagues and loved ones to do so, along with Matthew Benjamin as engineer Tom the narrator, the show’s most awkward device.
Parks’ ambitious plan suits the portrait of Ray as topdog battling underdog behavior during his years of womanizing and drug abuse, betrayals and peremptory dismissals. Premise is that in the hardscrabble days when his sight was going, his mother’s lesson “Work with what you got” toughened but also hardened Ray Charles Robinson into fierce independence that morphed into periodic withdrawal from others behind those dark specs. (It’s a sharper interp than the movie’s Freudian spin that young Ray was haunted by brother George’s drowning, an incident that carries almost no weight here.)
Taking advantage of stage stylization, Parks and Epps establish clever links between character and the songs’ lyrical content (and finding more such moments, especially in act one, will unify and deepen the tuner). “I Can’t Stop Loving You” is the sad declaration of a trio of Ray’s women, while “Unchain My Heart” becomes a ballad of hoped-for release by members of the retinue.
Two of those members, Daniel Tatar’s puckish Ahmet Ertegun and Harrison White’s ebullient manager Jerry, are standouts, but it’s appropriate that the women come off best, starting with the indomitable Yvette Cason as Mother Robinson and Nikki Renee Daniels as long-suffering wife Della B. The role comes with much clunky exposition, but Daniels sings like an angel and easily persuades she could be anyone’s soulmate.
The Raeletts are the buxom and musically gifted backups of legend, especially Angela Teek and Sabrina Sloan, amusing in their “Don’t Set Me Free” challenge duet for Ray’s attentions. (While Parks doesn’t back away from the promiscuity — to be a Raelett a gal evidently did have to “let Ray” — nine out-of-wedlock Charles kids go unmentioned, undercutting the show’s self-congratulatory aim to “Tell the Truth.”)
Despite inevitable comparison with Jamie Foxx, Dixon succeeds in owning the role. While lacking the vocal gravel that filled the most casual comment with sultry double entendre — in song he sounds more like James Ingram, perhaps to protect against throat problems — Dixon gets the rolling gait, the initial catch in the throat, the full-body reaction of delight as if a mouse were running up his clothes. Most importantly, he captures Ray’s stubborn rationalization of his follies that so maddened those around him, as Parks’ format allows them frequently to report.
Thesp could usefully flash the patented Charles smile more often during act one. Greater early warmth would expand his emotional range once Ray’s private limitations start mounting up, as the show builds to the climactic confession that despite his public persona, ultimately “You Don’t Know Me.” Star turn doesn’t need engineer Tom’s breathlessly condescending “That was great, Ray,” as if its brilliance weren’t self-evident.
Roadhouse cootch dance to a jazzy “What Kind of Man Is This” shows off Kenneth Roberson’s limber choreography, though it’s unwise to have the choir dance when first singing the number straight: A prim, choir-robed rendition followed by hot high-stepping would better convey a sense of Ray’s “Sunday morning and Saturday night” gospel/R&B fusion. Act two’s Apollo Theater opening is smart as well, though a gymnast later seems to cavort in capri pants to “What’d I Say” solely because it’s been too long between dances.
Riccardo Hernandez creates a set fit for a contempo concert, with Donald Holder’s lighting and Austin Switzer’s projections offering hints of earlier periods as effectively as do Paul Tazewell’s witty costumes (capri pants included) and Rahn Coleman’s music arrangements, which throughout befit the timeless compositions that fueled the legend.