Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The show follows the jukebox bio-musical template, which delivers the wonderful songs and the chance to reincarnate, at least for two or three hours, the persona of the artist being celebrated. Wound around the music, a narrative depicts the performer's humble origins, their early struggle to break through, and their years of success, riddled by personal hardships–marital woes, clashing egos, drugs or booze, family discord, or some other trauma to portray the fact that making it to the top doesn't make it easy. In the end, though, our hero or heroes face us with assurance that no matter what, it's been worth it. Also, they will never leave us because, after all, the music lives on. Or some variation of that formula.
Not all of these work equally well, of course, but Ain't Too Proud acquits itself as one of the better examples of the genre. The marvelous songs and the memories they conjure for those of us of an age to have such memories, contribute no end, but a lot of the credit goes to the musical's book by celebrated playwright Dominique Morisseau's (this past season, her Skeleton Crew was nominated for the Best Play Tony Award), who does justice to the complicated interplay of the five members of the group from 1964 to 1968 when they popped out of obscurity to chart-topping hits, dates at major venues coast to coast, and appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show," signifying they were no longer a niche rhythm and blues group but part of the mainstream entertainment scene. This was what is sometimes called the "Classic Five Era," and Morisseau gives us clear insight into the gifts and the demons that possessed each one in the group: Otis Williams, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Melvin Franklin and Paul Williams.
Because Otis Williams is the only one still alive, let alone still performing, and the show is based on his 1988 autobiography, "Temptations," and its 2002 update, he is the first and last character we see, and he serves as our guide throughout. The scale may be tipped by that circumstance, but it does truly appear that Williams was the glue that kept the group together and, as its members left or were let go, kept the sound, name and the very idea of the Temptations alive.
They started out as kids in Detroit, though most of the originals were migrants from the south whose families came seeking higher wage jobs in the auto factories, so their styles melded southern soul with urban grit and funk. Born as the merger of two groups struggling without making much progress, the Temps' (as fans call them) rise was linked to two key events: getting signed on to Motown by legendary producer Berry Gordy; and David Ruffin being brought into the group. Ruffin's voice, velvet smooth but rough around the edges, and his fantastic moves on stage–leaps, splits, and such–brought in adoring fans. At the same time, his extreme egotism, poor work habits, and descent into drugs made him increasingly a weight on the group, a conflict which occupies much of the show's narrative.
The Motown connection allows for some overlap with the musical Motown of several years back, with Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson, who wrote and produced most of the Temptations' first hits on the Motown label, both having featured roles, and the Supremes, then the number one group at Motown, somewhat gratuitously given a chance to dish out a medley of their hits "You Can't Hurry Love," "Come See About Me," and "Baby Love."
Ain't Too Proud works because the relationships among the "classic five" are interesting and compelling, severely testing the notion of being joined in brotherhood, and the pull that their different values had on each group member. For example, Eddie Kendricks begged to call off their tour through the Jim Crow South when their bus started drawing gunfire from the locals, saying no tour was worth getting shot, but for Otis Williams, it was worth it, not only because he always moved in the direction of success, but because performing in the South represented a breakthrough for Black performers, and for all African Americans.
The touring company benefits from an abundance of talent. Marcus Paul James has the lead, as Otis Williams, and he rings the bell in acting, singing, and movement departments. At the performance I attended, Harris Matthews filled for regular Elijah Ahmad Lewis as David Ruffin, the second lead, both in terms of time in the spotlight and his effect on the rest of the group. Matthews does a terrific job, again covering all the bases, especially the athletic moves Ruffin worked into his performances. Jalen Harris has the silky crooner's voice as Eddie Kendricks and does a superb job presenting Kendricks' petulance. Harrell Holmes Jr. delivers Melvin Franklin's distinctive bass voice, a strong element of the group's sound, along with the good-hearted loyalty that enabled him to hang on with Otis Williams longer than any of the other originals. Paul Williams is played by Marcus Paul James, who does fine work early on, along with the others, but especially shows depth as he depicts Paul's slide into alcoholism.
Other cast members are terrific as a hard working ensemble, playing the various parents, girlfriends, agents, competitors, replacement Temps, and other parts, none of which are very developed, though Lawrence Dandridge has a great take on Smokey Robinson's distinctive voice, and Najah Hetsberger makes an impression as Otis' long-suffering wife Josephine. In their Supremes cameo slot, Amber Mariah Talley, Shayla Brielle G, and Traci Elaine Lee are excellent stand-ins for originals Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson, respectively.
Director Des McAnuff knows his way around a jukebox bio-musical, having directed the cream of the crop, Jersey Boys, though he faltered–albeit with inferior material–on Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. Perhaps male vocal groups are his wheelhouse. In any case, he keeps things moving smoothly from scene to scene, much as our memories look back through our lives without having to demarcate the transitions.
By its nature, a jukebox musical doesn't have an original score, but that means the orchestrator's job, making familiar songs sound fresh while adapting them for dance sequences and other stage business, is all the more important. Ain't Too Proud is in good hands with veteran orchestrator Harold Wheeler, though it is frustrating that too often we don't hear a song in its entirety, moving halfway through to another song or the insertion of dialogue. Of course, with thirty-one songs listed, if we heard them all in their entirety we'd have a ridiculously long show. Sergio Trujillo's choreography allows for the leads to show off the legendary slick, smooth, synchronized onstage dance routines, and he won a Tony Award for his efforts. There is a minimum of large-scale dance numbers, and to be honest, the show's authenticity feels well served by their absence.
The setting designed by Robert Brill is not particularly noteworthy, serving as a shell–and a non-too attractive one–on which the show is staged. Non-stop projections, designed by Peter Nigrini, liven things up somewhat, but too often are nothing more than the names of cities on a tour or the title of the song being performed–informative but doing nothing to add atmosphere to the proceedings. Howell Binkley's lighting, however, goes a long way to convey a mood and direct our attention. Paul Tazewell has designed apt costumes that convey differences among the characters and the changing styles over the decades, greatly aided by Charles G. LaPointe's work as hair and wig designer.
Jukebox musicals have their limitations, but Ain't Too Proud is among the better examples of the genre and worth seeing. It offers skilled showmanship, a compelling narrative, and those songs–"Papa Was a Rolling Stone," "Get Ready," I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," "Just My Imagination," and of course "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," and so many more. With a catalog like that, it's no wonder the Temptations are still performing and drawing crowds. If proof is needed, they are playing the huge main grandstand at the Minnesota State Fair this summer, in a double bill with another long surviving group, the Beach Boys. They may be past their heyday, but as they love to tell us, the music lives on.
Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations runs through July 10, 2022, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $40.00 - $146.00. Educator and student rush tickets available for all performances, $30.00, cash only, limit of two tickets per ID. For ticket and performance information call 612-339-7007 or visit hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, please visit ainttooproudmusical.com.
Book: Dominique Morisseau, based on the book The Temptations by Otis Williams, with Patricia Romanowski; Music and Lyrics: The Legendary Motown Catalog; Director: Des McAnuff: Choreographer: Sergio Trujillo; Scenic Design: Robert Brill; Costume Design: Paul Tazewell; Lighting Design: Howard Binkley; Sound Design: Steve Canyon Kennedy; Projection Design: Peter Nigrini; Hair and Wig Design: Charles G. LaPointe; Fight Director: Steve Rankin; Orchestrations: Harold Wheeler; Music Supervision and Arrangements: Kenny Seymour; Music Director and Conductor: Jonathan "Smittie" Smith; Music Coordinator: John Miller; Associate Director: Logan Vaughn; Tour Resident Director: Brian Harlan Brooks; Associate Choreographer: Edgar Godineaux; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Merri Sugarman, C.S.A.; Production Stage Manager: Nicole Olson; Assistant Stage Manager (Leslie S. Allen); Executive Producers: Otis Williams, Shelly Berger; Associate Producer: Linda J. Stewart
Cast: Michael Andreaus (Berry Gordy, ensemble), Gregory C. Banks, Jr (Lamont, ensemble), Brian C. Binion (swing), Reed Campbell (Shelly Berger, ensemble), Lawrence Dandridge (Slick Talk Fella/Damon Harris, ensemble), Shayla Brielle G. (Florence Ballard, Tammi Terrell, ensemble), Jalen Harris (Eddie Kendricks), Treston J. Henderson (swing), Najah Hetsberger (Josephine/ensemble), Antwaun Holley (swing), Devin Holloway ("Gloria" soloist, interviewer, Richard Street, ensemble), Harrell Homes Jr. (Melvin Franklin), Marcus Paul James (Otis Wilson), James T. Lane (Paul Williams), Kyshawn Lane (swing), Tracie Elaine Lee (Johnnie Mae, Mary Wilson, ensemble), Elijah Ahmad Lewis (David Ruffin), Brett Michael Lockley (Al Bryant, Norman Whitfield, ensemble), Harris Matthew (Straight Talk Fella, Dennis Edwards, ensemble), Amber Mariah Talley (Diana Ross, ensemble), Andrew Volzer (swing).