AIN’T TOO PROUD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE TEMPTATIONS is two and half hour of pure pleasure, a thrilling non-stop ride through R&B pop music and an exuberant celebration of the American jukebox musical in its matured form. It’s the best since JERSEY BOYS, the jukebox musical that spawned a generation of the genre. Fittingly, AIN’T TOO PROUD's director is Des McAnuff, who helmed JERSEY BOYS (Tony and Olivier Awards) in 2005. After a notable recent misfire in SUMMER, the Donna Summer bio-musical, he’s back at the top of the game.
The Temptations’ story is narrated as a memory play from 1960 to the present by its founder and only survivor of the original quintet, Otis Williams (who holds the rights to the group’s name) played with detached cool by a cool Derrick Basin. Williams starts with his delinquent days in inner city Detroit. After a prison term, he teams up with Melvin Franklin (played by the smooth baritone Jawan M. Jackson). The ego-driven David Ruffin (played by powerhouse Ephraim Sykes), a sensitive Paul Williams (the sexy tenor James Harness), and boyish Eddie Kendrick’s (played by a silky, falsetto Jeremy Pope last seen in CHOIR BOY) round out the original quintet.
The story faithfully and linearly follows The Temptations’ personal and professional lives - working the Detroit clubs, getting signed by Barry Gordy at Motown, battles with artistic management, girlfriends/ marriages/ infidelities/ divorces, substance abuse, career jealousies (especially of The Supremes), egos, crossing over from Black R&B to the Top 40, racism and playing the segregated South, the pressures of success, the group’s falling apart and the group’s fraught reunion.
A lot of it sounds like standard show biz stuff, huh? Yes, but therein lies the facile keenness of Dominique Morisseau’s book. As the author of 3-cycle THE DETROIT PROJECT, she knows the turf (literally) and the drama in the African American experience, but wisely doesn’t overreach. Sure, she provides Williams’ tale some social context, acknowledging political events like Martin Luther King’s assassination and Vietnam. (If you sit close enough to the stage, you can recognize in a brief 1960s scene Melvin Franklin’s mother clutching a copy of James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It On the Mountain”.) Morisseau lets Williams just tell his story, matter-of-factly, straight to the audience and straight from the heart. Morisseau neither embellishes theme nor disguises sentiment. Morisseau doesn’t try to make The Temptations’ story any more than it is, because AIN’T TOO PROUD is all about song and dance.
And, man, is it ever. McAnuff with choreographer Sergio Trujillo weaves Williams’ story-telling seamlessly with almost three dozen numbers and dazzling choreography that never ceases to entertain. The songs, all credited to “the legendary Motown catalog”, aren’t reproductions: The Temptations sing-along hits are all there, with their swooning, hook- laden melodies, but they’ve been newly orchestrated for an 18 piece band and arranged so that they slide from one scene to the next.
Similarly, Trujillo’s choreography isn’t a replication of the dance routines that made The Tempts (as they refer to themselves) as famous for their moves as their songs. Trujillo’s interpreted The Tempts’ routines, exploding their inherent theatricality into a non-stop, eye-popping stream of the coolest, smoothest moves on the Broadway stage today. In fact, if you watch the original Temptations on YouTube, it’s plain the Tempts never danced as well as the guys in the cast here, but no matter. The choreography in AIN'T TO PROUD is both indebted to The Temptations’ original routines and a tribute to the Black artist performance tradition The Temptations, with other African American performing artists, spawned. Michael Jackson didn’t make up all his moves on his own.
Most remarkable is that not only do the actors as a group soar but also each actor imbues his character with his own set of moves and vocal style. Each performance of the quintet, and the “new” Tempts who joined the group when an original dropped out, is contoured with specific personality.
All The Temptations’ signature, harmonized hits are here: “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (1966), which opens the show, to “My Girl" (1964), “Get Ready” (1966), "I Wish It Would Rain" (1967), "Cloud Nine" (1969) and "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)" (1970). Wisely, the songs aren’t used chronologically but slip into Williams’ narrative more or less topically, as smoothly as the never-ending footwork. Every number is perfectly executed, but the two outstanding are “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”, where the Tempt’s church choir roots underpin hip, urban funk and the soulful “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” lead by Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendricks in the best vocal interpretation of this famous hit I’ve ever heard.
Most of the action takes place on the concert stage: the set design minimizes props to suggest conference rooms or recording studios. A center stage turntable moves the cast through scene changes. Costume design is understated - it’s period in nature but subdued in color and style. AIN’T TOO PROUD is all about the performance, as William’s declares, of the” #1 group in R&B history.” In AIN’T TOO PROUD, the music never stops. Nor does the dance.
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