Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations
While the story of the Temptations may not have as many newsworthy or shocking events as happened in Tina Turner and Michael Jackson's lives, and there really isn't much drama in the Temptations' story beyond backstage disagreements and some members of the group feeling their contributions are more important than the others, the superb national tour cast deliver soul-stirring performances infused with energy and panache. When combined with clear direction and a fast-moving book, the result is a crowd-pleasing musical that is a testament to the enduring legacy of the music of this classic quintet.
The plot spans several decades, is narrated by the group's last surviving original member, Otis Williams, and is based on his autobiography "The Temptations." Williams says he wants to "revisit his journey," and the story unfolds in chronological order, beginning in the 1950s when Williams, along with friends Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks, and Al Bryant, forms a group called the Primes that catches the attention of Berry Gordy who signs them to Motown Records.
Renamed the Temptations, the group starts recording songs under the guidance of Gordy, songwriter Smokey Robinson, and their ambitious white manager, Shelly Berger, who pledges to push them into crossing over onto the pop charts and TV. When the charismatic but troubled David Ruffin joins the group as the lead singer, they find success with such hit songs as "My Girl" and "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," but this also introduces internal conflicts, personal struggles, and artistic differences. Over the years, they also deal with financial challenges, strained relationships, addiction, and the tragic loss of members to illness. Otis Williams says "there is no progress without sacrifice" and the plot clearly lays out the many sacrifices the group made along their journey to fame.
The book by Dominique Morisseau explores the unique personalities of each group member along with their continuous resilience to overcome the obstacles on their path to fame. It also refreshingly doesn't shy away from the challenges the group faced and is unflinchingly honest. Morisseau also shows how the rise of the group is set against the evolving music industry and the changing landscape of American society, and how major events, including the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, impacted the members of the group and the music they recorded, as well as the challenges faced by African American artists at that time who had to deal with racism when attempting to gain traction in the segregated South.
The national tour cast is excellent. Michael Andreaus is commanding as Otis Williams, the group's founder and de facto leader. His nuanced performance allows us to see Williams' determination and ambition as well as his vulnerability and his profound love for making the group's music the best it can be. Elijah Ahmad Lewis is wonderful as the charismatic David Ruffin. Lewis' magnetic portrayal, solid stage presence, and refined vocal abilities create a realistic and fleshed-out depiction of the lead singer whose tenure with the Temptations left an indelible mark on the group's sound but also lingering doubts that forced them to make hard choices all tied to the pressures of fame.
Jalen Harris, understudy Devin Price, and Harrell Holmes Jr. portray the other three members of the group, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, and Melvin Franklin, respectively, and all bring charisma and gorgeous singing voices that blend into brilliant harmonies, and remarkable dance steps that make the synchronized choreography soar. The supporting cast and ensemble masterfully create a wide range of distinct characters, including Gordy and Diana Ross.
Des McAnuff directed another bio-musical about a famous performing group, Jersey Boys, that became a huge hit, so he is familiar with the requirements needed to create a successful biographical production about a popular musical group. Here, he ensures that the humor, drama, and poignant moments in the script shine and are distinctive, and that the entire cast create realistic and believable performances.
Sergio Trujillo's choreography creates showstopping stage images and is a visual feast that depicts the rhythmic, synchronized complexities of the Temptations' dance steps. Trujillo has also created additional energetic and expressive choreography that, along with McAnuff's swiftly paced scene changes, keeps the show moving along, as well as authentic steps for the other well-known recording artists whose songs are featured in the musical.
Robert Brill's sleek scenic design, the lush lighting from Howell Binkley, and the superb projection design by Peter Nigrini, which includes archival photos and video that provides historical context to the production, swiftly transport the audience from one location to the next as well as across the different eras the musical is set against. The costumes by Paul Tazewell are authentic and help to enhance the plot by reflecting the changing fashions of the times across the four decades in the show. The featured songs include a nonstop parade of Temptations greatest hits, and Steven Canyon Kennedy's sound design and the cast and the excellent band, under Jonathan "Smitti" Smith's music direction, provide crisp and clear vocals and bright notes.
Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations is a celebration of the fortitude and enduring legacy of the Temptations and a powerful tribute to the group's remarkable contribution to the world of soul music. While there may be less backstage drama in the story of the Temptations than in other recent biographical musicals, with a sensational cast, the national tour is a crowd-pleasing musical powerhouse.
Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations runs through November 19, 2023, at ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.asugammage.com or call 480-965-3434. For more information about the tour, visit ainttooproudmusical.com
Book: Dominique Morisseau