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Review: AIN'T TOO PROUD Pairs Familiar Songs with Familiar Story Beats at Dr. Phillips Center

With a talented cast on tour, this biographical musical makes a good time out of great songs despite its plain plot.

Ain't Too Proud

AIN'T TOO PROUD is a jukebox musical about Motown R&B sensations the Temptations... and gives in to a few temptations of its own.

There's the temptation these days for any successful music group with a lucrative catalog of hits to turn them into a Broadway show.

The temptation for a jukebox musical to pair its songs with plot points that don't quite fit.

The temptation for anyone writing a music star's biography to follow the usual story beats - meager beginnings, upward struggles, a big break, the excesses of fame, a fall from grace, and a happy ending.

The temptation for producers to seek the widest possible audience with a directive for easy humor and broad-stroke themes.

But even if AIN'T TOO PROUD commits a few sins on its way to Motown glory, it is at least absolved to some extent by the sheer quality of that songbook. And, in the current touring production at Dr. Phillips Center, it gets some extra absolution from its incredibly talented cast.

Marcus Paul James plays Temptations founder Otis Williams as calm, level-headed, and likeable. If Williams comes across as the hero it's no surprise - AIN'T TOO PROUD is based on his memoirs and gives him double duty as narrator of his own story. James brings an agreeable, understated temperament to Williams that nicely anchors the larger personalities of the characters around him.

Elijah Ahmad Lewis is exuberant as the showy and self-destructive lead singer David Ruffin, though Ruffin's star later falls to Dennis Edwards, played by Harris Matthew whose on-stage humor and swagger breathe fresh air into Act Two. In a highlight number, the two go back and forth on one mic in a battle for the big lead.

James T. Lane is earnest and distinctive as Paul Williams, the Temptation that everyone roots for. Jalen Harris is convincingly impassioned as the principled Eddie Kendricks. Harrell Holmes Jr. easily stands out in both song and speech for his deep bass, juxtaposed against a sometimes sheepish personality to good comedic effect.

In supporting roles, Lawrence Dandridge gets big laughs for his spot-on turn as Smokey Robinson, while Brett Michael Lockley stands out in strong voice as Al Bryant. Michael Andreaus makes for a memorable Berry Gordy. And Najah Hetsberger, despite her brief time on stage, earns maybe the strongest emotional reaction of the night with a single devastating gasp as Josephine Miles, mother to Otis's son.

AIN'T TOO PROUD moves at a lighthearted pace but finds deeper meaning when pausing to consider, however briefly, the complex history of Black music in America.

Ultimately, it is the music that makes the show. "My Girl," "Just My Imagination," "Get Ready," "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," the title track, and so much more - they're all here, with a songbook that even extends beyond The Temptations into some of Motown's biggest hits. It's the type of show that elicits unsolicited audience singalong, theatre etiquette be damned (and I'll admit that after all those months away from group gatherings, that kind of thing doesn't annoy me as much as it might once have).

Opening night at Dr. Phillips Center suffered from some issues with the sound mix early in Act One and an unfortunate (but brief) mic lapse later on. But it's the rousing, rapturous music that will be remembered, no doubt, by all the patrons who were leaping to their feet to sway along by show's end.

"You know you make me want to SHOUT," the ensemble sings. And I'll admit - formulaic as the show may be - I did feel a little shout of joy inside myself at the end too.

Note: This marks the first Broadway show to run in the Walt Disney Theatre concurrent with a show in the Center's new and adjoining Steinmetz Hall. On opening night, there was only a slight uptick in traffic and entry congestion, but returning patrons may wish to plan a few more minutes into their arrival than usual. As for Covid precautions, in response to a state mandate, Dr. Phillips Center recently reversed its strictly enforced vaccine and testing mandates for guests, though all patrons are still required to wear face coverings. Performers do not wear masks. AIN'T TOO PROUD runs through January 30 before continuing on its national tour. Get tickets at Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts or the official tour website.

What do you think of AIN'T TOO PROUD on tour? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.

Photography Credit: Christian Thompson, Saint Aubyn, Ephraim Sykes, Jeremy Pope, Derrick Baskin, and Jawan M. Jackson in AIN'T TOO PROUD. Photo by Matthew Murphy. Used with permission, courtesy of Dr. Phillips Center.

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