Review: AIN’T TOO PROUD

IN BRIEF Glorious singing and energetic performances elevates this manufactured bio-musical

In anyone’s language, the Temptations are a music phenomenon, with an almost unrivalled longevity, and still going.

Created by Otis Williams in mid-fifties “Motor City” Detroit, after falling into bad company as a youngster, Williams found music as his “calling” after being inspired the Cadillac’s celestial rendering of Gloria (which to this day remains a goosebump-inducing song for me, as a doo-wop and close harmony fan, too).

The story of the Temps (who knew that Temp would also come to mean temporary in this group, which to date has had over 70 members over seven decades), of five men, catalysed by music and forged by shared aspiration for a better life away from petty crime and gangs, is celebrated, whilst never allowing them (or us) to forget that the brand is bigger than any of its individual members. The 85-minute first half overwhelms us with classic songs, from future group members blasting out fifties’ classics, to the creation of the “classic five” line-up and their challenging navigation of relationships, managers, fame and increasing popularity, to become one of the rare crossover acts that had big followings, played big crowds and had to manage big egos, even as world events flared up around them.

A big heads-up is that this show comes to you from several of the team who brought us the international smash JERSEY BOYS (director Des McAnuff, choreographer Sergio Trujilio, lighting designer Howell Binkley and sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy). In many ways, it’s the same structure applied to the Temptations, and it stands very much in the former show’s shadow.

All the tropes of “the price of fame” are here – ego, drugs, sex, booze – and each challenge presents the group with tricky decisions which threaten, but never derail, their progress. Dominique Morriseau’s script is ironically both too heavy and too light, yes it’s fast-moving but unengaged, and even then manages to get caught up too long on the group’s infighting. It must be said the inclusion of some of the songs’ backstories are genuinely interesting and add another layer to our understanding of this turbulent and competitive era. The book’s treatment of historical events of the late sixties feel way too glossed over to really create an impact, never being allowed to slow the show’s progress to the next song. Further, the cobbled attempts to bolt the songs to world events (even when they don’t really match) feels poorly-considered.

The show’s stripped-down, black and white industrial-look stage design (by Robert Brill) works both for it and against it. Cleverly reminiscent of the birthplace of Motown, Detroit, the car manufacturing capital of the world, set pieces (and people) roll on and off stage on low, flat trucks which rather overstate the conveyor-belt feel to the presentation. However the starkness of look does tire after a while. The appearance of a blue satin stage curtain in act two seems a little incongruous but is nevertheless a welcome piece of colour. The minimalism does, however, encourage us to focus on the band members themselves and their performances of the songs are energetic, confident and largely faithful to the originals. It would have been nicer to have heard longer versions of some of the songs (which is why we turned up!), but there is a lot of ground to cover and this is not a concert.

With much time and many characters to bring on and offstage, the show sacrifices depth of character for breadth of numbers, so we get the broadest sketches of characters, which means that we rarely feel invested enough to care about them or want to know more.  Only the character of the founder Otis Williams (played with some gravitas by Sifiso Mazibukowho) who steps in and out of the show to narrate the story, has enough time to come across with any semblance of depth.

The (mostly) fast pace of the show means that we don’t have time to stop to ponder upon the bare-bones construction. But this show, like its other songbook show predecessors, is all about the music, and it is here, thankfully, where the show truly flies.

The band members certainly bring talent by the cartload, incredible power and control in their vocals and energy in their dance moves.

A group will always have variance in characters, and some characters just aren’t as strongly represented as others. The standouts, for me, Tosh Wanogho-Maud’s swag as supremely vocally talented David Ruffin (for me, worth the price of admission alone) wows the crowd with his moves and vocal pyrotechnics, and Mitchell Zhangazha as Eddie Kendricks stands out vocally for all the right reasons. The crowd gave a big reception to bass-voiced Cameron Bernard Jones as Melvin Franklin, perhaps more for the much-appreciated elements of humour he brought to a pretty serious script. Kyle Cox as Paul Williams rounds out the classic five line-up which dominates the show. Their synchronised dance moves, lovingly recreated by Trujilio, are by turns dynamic, smooth and engaging.

It’s a very male-heavy show, with only a few peripheral female characters, which fairly accurately reflects the music industry of its time. Brief appearances by Diana Ross and the Supremes sing truncated versions of some of their hits, and it feels like they have been taken less care of in terms of their styling and presentation as subsidiary characters in this show.

The excellent band in the pit have their moment on stage to close the show and their playing captures the Motown beat and drive. This is music that musicians love to play and this talented band are clearly loving it, and doing the Motown sound justice.

If you go, you’ll go for the music – and you definitely won’t be disappointed.

AIN’T TOO PROUD plays at London’s Prince Edward Theatre until January 2024. Tickets and information here


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