BWW Album Review: AIN'T TOO PROUD Lives Up To Legends
Reviewing the cast album for Ain't Too Proud, the new bio-musical tracing the origins of the Motown vocal group the Temptations, is an unusually tricky task. How does one really review music that has been iconic in the pop lexicon for half a century? For the most part, the original cast recording is a mixture of straightforward covers, interspersed with bits of dialogue so that it doesn't appear just as a cover album. Thanks to a ridiculously talented cast, it pretty much succeeds.
In Ain't Too Proud's structuring of the story, it's Otis Williams who narrates the evening. Played by Derrick Baskin with a charisma that is evident even when all you have is his voice, it's everything we've come to expect from biographical musicals from Jersey Boys to Beautiful to The Cher Show and so on. We start with "The Way You Do the Things You Do" before pausing and flashing back to the group's early days.
It's a smart choice to ease us into the album, not giving away any of the "big" songs right off the bat. It's not until the fifth track that we hit one of the massive, you-definitely-want-to-sing-along hits: "Shout," gleefully performed with precision and energy. Those precise harmonies are what get us through song after song. For audiences so used to the Temptations' greatest hits and an infinite stream of covers, it's easy for us to forget just how musically sharp their sound was. But Ain't Too Proud, with its polished arrangements and precise vocals, reminds us at every turn.
If there's a complaint to be had about the album, it's that it tries to have its cake and eat it too. Throughout the album, pieces of dialogue and narration are interspersed, allowing us to track the plot along with the hits parade of music. On the one hand, it's helpful to be able to keep up with how the plot is moving along - it's what keeps the album from feeling like it's just another (albeit very good) set of covers. On the other hand, it gets irritating after a while; the constant string of narration begins to feel forced, and listeners may just want to get through a single song without it being interrupted by narration.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with powerful voices that evoke their real-life counterparts without veering into impersonation. Baskin, along with Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin, have the most attention-getting moments, but Jawan M. Jackson, Jeremy Pope, and James Harkness all excel from the first notes. There's also an excellent interlude where we're introduced to The Supremes, led with Diana Ross-worthy vocals by Candice Marie Woods. In every moment, there's a real sense that the cast feels the weight of the iconic music they've been entrusted with, but that they're also working to tell the story too.
This is especially evident in the section near the end of the first act, where tensions in the band are rising, Sykes's Ruffin is growing a too-big ego, and racial tensions in America are hitting their boiling point. Over the course of a few songs at the end of the first act, including "Don't Look Back," "If You Don't Know Me By Now," and "I Could Never Love Another," we cover some huge changes in the characters' world - and it really, really works. It doesn't just feel like "here's the moments where they sang these songs," but like a true book musical, where the songs reflect the emotional moment. "I Wish It Would Rain," sung just after the group finds out about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., is one of the album's highlights. It's moments like these that elevate the Ain't Too Proud album from simple covers to powerful storytelling.