The Tony Award winning musical Ain’t Too Proud is on a massive first national tour, playing South Florida for the entire month of February, with a stop at Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center for the Performing Arts at the Au Rene Theater. Ain’t Too Proud details the story of the Motown vocal group The Temptations through the lens of founding member Otis Williams. While the Broadway show is no longer on Theater Row, its presence as a touring production is sure to captivate audiences around the country. With a timeless soundtrack and impeccable kinetic energy, the show is a non-stop powerhouse that showcases incredibly talented performers with an extremely demanding libretto.
With a nearly all-Black cast, the show featured several triple threat performers in the main roles of the “Classic Temptations.” Marcus Paul James takes on the narrator role as Otis Williams, providing incredible comedic timing on top of singing harmonies with intense choreography by Sergio Trujillo done in perfect pantomime of the original group. While impeccably casted with each actor delivering a personification of the real life Temptations, the real life stories aren’t really given much room to develop them beyond a simplified characteristic in life and their on-stage deaths are played with little gravitas, some members simply coming back to life within the span of a song.
Featuring several selections from The Temptations catalog, the musical arrangements are played faithfully to the original recordings, albeit with more hi-fi and performed on modernized equipment. At times, unless the actors fully enunciated the diction was buried beneath the pit orchestra. With little room to breathe between songs beyond Williams’ narration, the musical runs electric with the group’s energy consistently at a high. The show also gave insight into the band’s relationship to other Black artists of the Motown scene, notably The Supremes, Tammi Terell, and Edwin Starr. The inclusion of The Supremes makes the comparisons to “Dreamgirls” a bit more present in my reading of the show. I couldn’t help but see the similarities between the Berry Gordy allegory of “Dreamgirls” to his more literal presentation in this show. As well as, the emotional beat of “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)” being placed at David Ruffin’s removal from the group due to diva behavior reads like the “And I Am Telling You” moment.
The kinetic energy of the show developed between Trujillo’s choreography and Peter Nigrini’s set design made the upbeat pace of the show chug along. With the automated set pieces ranging from dressing rooms, TV studios, and even the giant Motown logo in LED lights (which was thankfully fixed before the second act). Nigrini’s projections in shows like Beetlejuice and The Spongebob Musical utilize mapping in an extremely transformative manner, in Ain’t Too Proud the frantic pace of the various settings are displayed through a bold, Futura condensed typeface or faux theater marquees. While this may be more symptomatic of a “telling not showing” mentality, Nigrini takes a stylized approach to crafting a stage that doesn’t instantly point to a specific time period.
Choosing to divide scenes by locations rather than specific points in time does make for a less straightforward narrative structure that has beleaguered the biomusical format. Even the costumes of the main quintet don’t tell of a specific era, with their suits evolving over the course of the band’s success. However, this isn’t to say the show is entirely free of the cliches of dramatically retelling musicians’ lives on stage or screen. While this isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, the plot beats hit all the signifying tropes that the biographical stage and screen translations have been done to death with. The “Cloud Nine” sequence of Otis walking in on the other Temptations smoking a bong feels like it was pulled right from “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” which coincidentally also featured The Temptations in a cameo.
In 2019, biomusicals on Broadway were aplenty, with “Ain’t Too Proud” opening alongside “Tina”, “The Cher Show”, and the off-Broadway run of “Jersey Boys.” With the latter two breaking the straightforward narrative format of biomusicals and “Tina” taking a more concise performance route featuring Adrienne Warren in the narrative of Turner’s life, “Ain’t Too Proud” finds its lead narrator in the only surviving member of the original group- Otis Williams. With the actual Williams on board as the producer of the show there is a bit of a clear bias towards his view of how the band operated. When Williams establishes that the group operates as a collective, his reliability as a narrator begins to unravel as Temptations members gradually get replaced in the “good of the group.”
Between his direct input on the production of the show, the story doesn’t give enough time for any of the other members of the group’s stories to really play out beyond a spotlight moment or two. One could argue it could be because of the already lengthy 2 hours 30 min runtime fitting in nearly three decades of history, however with non-stop songs it almost feels intentional to not let characters be defined so simplistically. The choice to solely use Williams memoir as source text feels like a missed opportunity to engage with the other Temptations lives in a more interesting way. Ain’t Too Proud shows glimpses of the more dramatic stories within the greater narrative, but ultimately feels more ready for a more serial format than a stage show.
Where the show begins to show promise is in its story is the presentation of social issues. Director Des McAnuff allows Dominique Morisseau’s book to analyze the larger ramifications of being Black artists during a time of social upheaval in the 1960s. In the personal sphere, Otis Williams and David Ruffin repeating the mistakes of their fathers by being both absent and abusive respectively paints this cycle of generational trauma that ends in each losing their respective loved ones. It feels like a missed opportunity to not have these plot points more directly portrayed as a parallel on stage, especially with the animosity of Williams and Ruffin over control over the group.
As a political narrative, the show only begins to engage with the larger world around the Temptations’ career. When the group plays the Southern states for the first time only to get shot at in a hate crime, Williams’ seems to self-righteously speak for the group to keep going to preserve the music with executives like Berry Gordy and Shelly Berger playing the corporate rotating villain quelling the group’s potential for being able to speak out against injustice. Morriseau’s script pokes through the ideas of collective efforts and overcoming hatred, which seem to be inhibited from being a true exploration of the group’s relationship to race. Williams positing “are we doing enough?” when mentioning the Detroit riots “(I Know) I’m Losing You” before going into the death of Martin Luther King Jr loses emotional weight when segueing into “I Wish It Would Rain” juxtaposing the death of Tammi Terrel. In the second act, the Temptations losing the song “War” to avoid damaging the group’s reputation in taking a stance against the Vietnam War (literally just referred to as “the war” in the script) the show vaguely points to timelines while making a statement on performing as Black artists while losing the autonomy to use one’s voice to avoid alienating their White audience as the band had found their crossover appeal by the early 70s. In a similar way, Otis prevents Eddie from considering the group to go on strike to demand more from Motown, solely for the good of the group. The show only scratches the surface of these issues, opting to use them as set dressing rather than actually tackling the group’s rationale for self-preservation beyond being “replaceable.”
Ain’t Too Proud is a whirlwind jukebox musical spanning some of the most powerful moments in the lives of The Temptations. Loaded with a high-energy score, astonishingly precise choreography, and backed by a visually striking set, the show is a feast for the senses. A truly delightful time at the theater with timeless music, there is absolutely something for everyone in this show. Performances are playing at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Ft. Lauderdale until Feb. 20th.