The cast of ‘Ain’t Too Proud.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
By Ashley Lee
Get ready for Ain’t Too Proud, the vastly thrilling jukebox musical recounting the rough roads traveled by The Temptations. Stretching from the streets of Detroit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Broadway-bound, biographical account of the groundbreaking R&B group spans decades, mentioning key events in the personal and professional lives of its five foundational members. It’s an ambitious amount of ground to cover within two-and-a-half hours, especially while simultaneously showcasing snippets of more than 30 Motown songs.
Directed by Des McAnuff, the musical pulls it off with a storytelling strategy that is energetic and efficient. Derrick Baskin as the group’s founder Otis Williams expertly narrates the jam-packed journey, delivering book writer Dominique Morisseau’s humor and wisdom in bite-size servings, squeezing plenty into the breaks of the legendary group’s musical catalog. Likewise, Sergio Trujillo’s choreography literally keeps things in motion at all times with endless variations of The Temptations’ signature dance moves.
As the plot swiftly progresses from Otis’ first meeting with Melvin Franklin (Jawan M. Jackson) and the game-changing discovery of David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes) to the fame-related frustrations of Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope) and the debilitating alcoholism of Paul Williams (James Harkness), the group rarely ever leaves the stage, and the orchestra never takes a break. The formidable execution of this show is protected by its precision; it’s completely kinetic without ever being frenetic. And the sparse moments of stillness — to spotlight the era’s racial discrimination, to accentuate the time’s political urgency, to grieve a lost loved one — are incredibly moving. These emotional beats are punctuated by the projections-heavy set (scenic design by Robert Brill, projection design by Peter Nigrini), a quick-changing canvas for transforming the stage into a slew of venues and TV studios, as well as displaying pivotal newspaper headlines and vital archival photos.
One of the trickiest demands of any jukebox musical is to sort the already-known archive of music into two categories: songs originally groomed to be radio hits that are creatively repurposed as show tunes to move the story forward; and songs that are completely left alone, instead presented as the chart-toppers they were always meant to be. Ain’t Too Proud presents both with ease, earning lengthy applause from the audience when songs like “My Girl” and “Just My Imagination” are sung with minimal interruption. While much of the selection is compressed into medleys, some numbers carry a heavy amount of narrative weight: “Since I Lost My Baby” outlines the group’s collective romantic woes; “I Wish It Would Rain” mourns the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” sets the table for a montage of loss. There is no weak link in the group — performer, story or song. In fact, every actor is distinctly charismatic, visually and aurally, and their character arcs are equally compelling and emotionally affecting.
Playing at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre this month, this iteration of Ain’t Too Proud is the third of four developmental stagings. Its world premiere became the highest grossing production in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s nearly 50-year history, only to continue on to a record-breaking run at Washington D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. After L.A., the show goes on to Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre for the fall and then, finally, in the spring, New York City. So get ready, because Ain’t Too Proud is standing on the top of the Broadway season ahead.
Ain’t Too Proud
135 N Grand Ave, Los Angeles
Through September 30
Ashley Lee is a Los Angeles-based entertainment reporter and critic who reports on film and theater. Follow her editorial whereabouts on Twitter @cashleelee.