Look out, baby, cause here they come. Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations opened in Los Angeles at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre last night, just hours after it was announced the show will transfer to Broadway in spring 2019. With a score comprised of the iconic music catalogue of The Temptations and a book by Dominique Morisseau, the bio-musical made its world premiere last year at Berkeley Repertory Theater and will play Toronto later this fall before heading to the Big Apple.
Directed by two-time Tony winner Des McAnuff, the story is narrated by Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin), the founder of the group and the sole original member who is still alive today (the real Mr. Williams was in the Los Angeles audience for opening). He chronicles the rocky beginnings of gathering talent on the streets of Detroit to the glory days, when the group consisted of the five best-known Temptations: Otis, Paul Williams (James Harkness), Melvin Franklin (Jawan M. Jackson), Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope), and David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes). Over the years, due to a variety of reasons—alcohol and drugs, illness, personality clashes, getting drunk on fame and going off to pursue a solo career—the members of the group often changed, with new Temptations coming in as replacements as needed. In many ways, it was like a revolving door, and turntables and conveyor belts onstage quite literally cycle members of the group in and out as the story requires. While their success was hard won at first, they eventually became one of the most celebrated R&B groups of all time, and an iteration of The Temptations that still includes Otis continues to perform today.
Bio-musicals about musicians and musical groups are practically a dime a dozen these days—Jersey Boys, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Motown: The Musical (which also featured Jackson as Temptation Melvin Franklin), On Your Feet!, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, the list goes on. Many of these shows share thematic and structural similarities, although Ain’t Too Proud feels the most reminiscent of Jersey Boys (also directed by McAnuff), which is also narrated, also uses projections to relay passage of time, and, of course, also depicts an all-male singing group that struggled with some similar issues along the rise to the top. If anything, emphasizing the things that make the story of The Temptations different from these other stories is where Ain’t Too Proud struggles.
Many of the most interesting challenges the group faced feel glossed over in the context of the musical. For example, it took 24 tries for them to have a hit song, but when the show is structured to showcase the impressive, well-known discography of hits evenly dispersed throughout the two hours and thirty minutes, this fact is lost in the shuffle. The sheer number of Temptations—there have been 24 in all—introduced in the show makes it difficult to truly get to know any of them besides Otis, and even the other four who represent the group during its “foundation” period often feel reduced to caricatures. Perhaps the musical would benefit from focusing more on a shorter period of time rather than spanning several decades—the show could also stand to lose at least ten minutes, preferably in book scenes rather than in musical numbers. At one point later in the show, the group reacts to the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil unrest in their hometown of Detroit, but it feels like a forced historical benchmark rather than a meaningful connection that helps drive the story and character development.
That being said, jukebox musicals are about the music first and foremost, and this music is extraordinary. From “My Girl” to “Just My Imagination” to “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” the songs are terrific and well-performed by the talented cast. What the show lacks in terms of a compelling book it attempts to make up for in sheer energy and enthusiasm. Although the sound mix seemed off in a few numbers, resulting in the singers feeling drowned out by the band, nearly every song is a memorable moment, performed with the combination of impressive vocals and suave dance moves that The Temptations are known for. There is certainly an audience for this musical, and big fans of the group’s music will find plenty to enjoy, but in terms of jukebox bio-musicals, it does not exactly break the mold.
Ain’t Too Proud runs at the Ahmanson Theatre through September 30th. The running time is two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here. The show will then run in Toronto from October 11th to November 17th, and more information on that can be found here. Stay tuned for more information on the Broadway production that will open at the Imperial Theatre in spring 2019.
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