This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
This week it was reported that Tina Turner is preparing a Broadway musical based which will use her songs to tell her life story on stage. The show, tentatively titled, Simply the Best, is yet another addition to the current theatrical rage known as the "jukebox musical."
The genre has proven to be very lucrative over the past few years, with mega-hits like Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia! (which use the songs of The Four Seasons and Abba). But it has also brought us disasters like All Shook Up or The Times They Are A Changin', which made the music of Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan almost unlistenable.
Both Jersey Boys and The Times They Are A Changin', premiered here in Southern California before moving to Broadway, a fact that has raised expectations for the new Jukebox-Bio-Musical that is currently receiving its world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse: Ray Charles Live! .
Ray Charles Live! is an odd title for a show about an artist who passed away only three years ago, but it does (sort-of) make sense in the context of the show. All of the action unfolds during one of Ray Charles's live studio recordings. Actor Brandon Victor Dixon (who plays Ray Charles Robinson) says early in the show: "I'm laying down the tracks for the hits of my life."
This type of on-the-nose dialog makes it clear from the get go that Ray Charles Live! is going to be a pretty conventional biography. Most of the time, it feels like a very special episode of This is Your Life. Dixon, dressed in a tux with a gold, shawl collar. People from the singer's past strolling on stage. And Charles—or the chorus—singing an appropriate chestnut from his illustrious discography.
It's not unpleasant evening out, Dixon is a solid performer and makes a believable Ray Charles—plus the music is well played by the 10-piece band. It's just that Ray Charles Live! has the soporific effect of a Vegas dinner show—something Riccardo Hernandez's glitzy set only accentuates. If the Playhouse included a tough steak and some cheap wine with the ticket, it might be at home; but as a potential Broadway-bound show, it's a major disappointment.
What exacerbates this is that it was written by Suzan Lori-Parks, one of the America's most innovative dramatists. Parks wrote Topdog/Underdog (which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize) not to mention the ambitious and recently concluded, 365 Days/365 Plays project; but the scenes that bracket Ray Charles's music display none of her distinct, spiky, and irreverent flavor.
Ray Charles was a notorious ladies man, so you might expect the outspoken, feminist playwright to deconstruct or investigate his charm or prowess. Yet, in Parks' script, Ray Charles meets a woman, says "you're my soul mate," and then sings a song. That's it. We get the idea but not the emotion, to say nothing of detail. The most daring—or Brechtian—she gets is when she references the recent Warner Bros film, Ray, and suggests that the movie sugarcoated aspects of his past.
But Ray Charles Live! doesn't deviate much from that widely-seen film or challenge its famous subject. Parks' involvement gave hope that maybe Ray Charles Live! would be the stage equivalent of Todd Haynes Bob Dylan movie, I'm Not There—a film which is the antithesis of the standard Hollywood biopic—and that maybe Parks would push the jukebox musical in a new, interesting direction. Instead she and director Sheldon Epps have merely reshuffled the tunes on an already familiar playlist.
Ray Charles Live! Runs through this Sunday at the Pasadena Playhouse.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.