Ray Charles tribute delivers high-energy music, dance

Ray Charles covered more songs than most of us realize, and Wednesday evening's show at the Lied Center, "I Can't Stop Loving You," brought this home. Of the production's 38 tunes, only three were written by Charles: "What'd I Say," "Mary Ann" and "Hallelujah, I Just Love Her So." Some of the rest were his signature pieces: "Born to Lose," "I Can't Stop Loving You," "Rainy Night in Georgia," "Hit The Road, Jack" and "Georgia On My Mind."

But many in the audience were surprised to learn that Charles had sung some of the others, usually associated with very different vocalists: Bing Crosby's "You Are My Sunshine," the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love," John Lennon's "Imagine," Peggy Lee's "Fever," Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart." But, as the evening's spokesman pointed out, when Ray Charles sang someone else's song, he made it his own.

However, producer David King's decision was clearly not to attempt to imitate Ray Charles' own distinctive stylings of the songs, or to present a singer with his throaty vocal quality. Thus, in many cases the audience heard good music, entertainingly performed, but not particularly reminiscent of "the Genius." If the audience accepted this, they could enjoy the Cab Calloway favorite, "Minnie the Moocher" (with a dance ensemble in blinding orange zoot suits). They could applaud the Aretha Franklin-style lead in "Imagine." They could admire the languid presentation of "Makin' Whoopie," accompanied by a talented dance pair in a sultry adagio-tinged routine.

Gary Lloyd served as both director and choreographer, and 12 dancers joined the seven vocalists, keeping the stage lively with ultra-high energy and highly stylized hoofing. In addition to lots of strutting, high kicking, hip cocking and shoulder shaking, the show included every popular step from the 1940s on (swing, twist, boogaloo, monkey, chicken, frug ...) as well as frequent Fosse turns. There also were some fine tap numbers in "Basin Street Blues" and in the Act I closer, a rocking "Bye Bye Love."

The program provided biographical sketches of the company, but did not indicate which of them were featured in any of the numbers, so individual performances can not be acknowledged. Members of the excellent orchestra were not even listed in the program, and only a barely audible closing introduction informed the audience that the show's musical director, David Williams, was the gifted pianist, whose stylings were strongly reminiscent of Ray Charles' own.

Younger concertgoers, accustomed to big amphitheater shows, might have found the sound level modest, but quite a few of the Lied's regular patrons found it too loud for comfort, especially in the second act. And high-intensity lights, swiveling from the stage to project patterns on the ceiling, periodically blinded the audience.

The second act concluded in a series of up-tempo favorites: "Hit The Road, Jack," "Shake A Tail Feather," and - after a soulful "Georgia On My Mind" and "America the Beautiful," giving the dancers time to catch their breath - the evening's finale, "What'd I Say." The audience was on its feet and echoing the song's "Hey," "Ho," etc., and the dancers pulled concertgoers into the aisles to dance with them. An energized crowd awarded the troupe with a standing ovation.

- Dean Bevan is professor emeritus of English at Baker University. He can be reached at bevan@ku.edu.

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