Theater Review: Ain’t Too Proud

L-R: Christian Thompson, Saint Aubyn, Ephraim Sykes (center), Jeremy Pope, Derrick Baskin and Jawan M. Jackson in Ain’t Too Proud. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

A successful jukebox musical requires a jukebox full of hits, and Ain’t Too Proud, at the Ahmanson Theatre through September 30th, is jam-packed. “My Girl.” “Can’t Get Next to You.” “Ball of Confusion.” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” For the Temptations, the hits just kept on coming.

Success – and Ain’t Too Proud will surely be a success, both here and in its upcoming Broadway run – requires using the music in a compelling way. In this case, dramatic storylines come from band member turnover and the consequences of life on the road.

Another key to success is a talented cast, and this one is extensive. Standouts: Ephraim Sykes is David Ruffin, whose acting chops equal his gasp-inducing dance moves. Jeremy Pope does justice to Eddie Kendricks’ magnificent falsetto. Derrick Baskin, who originated the role of Otis Williams at theBerkeley Repertory Theater, where it was the biggest hit in the theater’s 50-year history, is the heart and soul of the show.

The women in the cast pass through quickly, although Rashidra Scott, playing Williams’ wife Josephine, shines with “If You Don’t Know Me by Now.” It’s surely unavoidable that a show focused on eight male band members wouldn’t have much room for the women, but the loss is keenly felt, given the talented female cast and the Motown stars included among their roles.

The show opens at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, as did Temptations, a 1988 memoir by founding Temptation Otis Williams that is the basis for Ain’t Too Proud. The set is beautifully enhanced by projections showing vintage audiences and headlines, as well as cinematic touches. Especially powerful are scenes of a tour stop in the South and civil unrest after the assassination of Martin Luther King.

The powers behind the band – Motown head Berry Gordy, producers Smokey Robinson and Norman Whitfield, and long-time manager Shelly Berger, as well as early manager Johnnie Mae – wield more control over the Temptations than the members themselves. In one revealing scene, Gordy refuses to let the Tempts have “War” (an instant hit for Edwin Starr), afraid the song will alienate their white listeners.

The unsung heroes of the Temptations are the musicians who played on their many hits and gave flight to their unique voices. Here, a brilliant 10-piece orchestra re-creates the hits and supports the action throughout, but remains unseen until the curtain call.

The show has some issues. First, there’s too much narration. The book, by Detroit native Dominique Morisseau, is strong enough to survive without its extensive scaffolding.

Second, it’s about 20 minutes in before we hear a song, “My Guy,” in its entirety. Many songs are truncated, sometimes performed as medleys, often cut off by narration. The opening night audience went wild at “My Guy,” then settled down through a Supremes medley and some other snippets before the title song, led by Sykes as Ruffin, reignited them. Fewer, longer songs might work better to move the story forward and keep audience energy high.

Another issue is the inclusion of minutiae, such as hints of dalliances and the out-of-left-field mention of Dean Martin’s daughter. Such extraneous details detract from the music and the story; they give the sense that an unseen hand is holding the show back. With some minor tweaking, Ain’t Too Proud might join the ranks of jukebox musical heroes like Jersey Boys and Smokey Joe’s Café.

Ain’t Too Proud has a running time of 2½ hours. It’s at the Ahmanson through September 30, opening a sure-to-be-stellar season that includes Dear Evan Hansen, Come from Away and Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella. Tickets.

 

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About Laura Foti Cohen

Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and marketing consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Neo Ensemble Theatre in Hollywood.

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