Oh no, the heart sinks, another jukebox musical on Broadway. So many-Cher, Donna Summer-have been varying degrees of cringe. But after leaving Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, which opened tonight at the Imperial Theatre (to November 24), a happy revelation: This jukebox musical not only has life, it also has wit, intelligence, while also looking stunning and full of energy.
AIN'T TOO PROUD Broadway Reviews
Ain't Too Proud - The Life and Times of The Temptations opens tonight, March 21, at Broadway's legendary Imperial Theatre (249 West 45th Street). Ain't Too Proud is the new musical that follows The Temptations' extraordinary journey from the streets of Detroit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. With their signature dance moves and unmistakable harmonies, they rose to the top of the charts creating an amazing 42 Top Ten Hits with 14 reaching number one. The rest is history--how they met, the groundbreaking heights they hit and how personal and political conflicts threatened to tear the group apart as the United States fell into civil unrest. This thrilling story of brotherhood, family, loyalty and betrayal is set to the beat of the group's treasured hits, including "My Girl," "Just My Imagination," "Get Ready," "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and so many more.
After breaking house records at Berkeley Rep, The Kennedy Center, CTG's Ahmanson Theatre, and Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre, Ain't Too Proud, written by three-time Obie Award winner Dominique Morisseau, directed by two-time Tony Award® winner Des McAnuff, and featuring choreography by Tony nominee Sergio Trujillo, now brings the untold story of this legendary quintet to irresistible life on Broadway.
Let's see what the critics had to say!
While honoring all the expected biomusical clichés, which include rolling out its subjects' greatest hits in brisk and sometimes too fragmented succession, this production refreshingly emphasizes the improbable triumph of rough, combustible parts assembled into glistening smoothness.
BWW Review: The Temptations Balance Crossover Success and Racial Identity in Dominique Morisseau's AIN'T TOO PROUD
While the great Motown songs like "Just My Imagination," "Get Ready" and "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" may be AIN'T TOO PROUD's main attraction, Morisseau's well-crafted storytelling proves just as important as the musical memories. This is the Broadway debut for the MacArthur Genius Grant recipient whose brilliant Off-Broadway contributions have included SKELETON CREW, PIPELINE and the trio of plays making up THE DETROIT PROJECT. Perhaps the next time her work appears on Broadway, the main attraction will be the music made by this exciting playwright's words.
There's some overlap here with 2015's Motown: The Musical, which covered a broader swath of the legendary hit factory's history. But this is the superior show, less pedestrian in its storytelling, if not without its own limitations. Those lie primarily in the workmanlike book, which settles on the memoir of Otis Williams, the Temptations' last surviving founding member, as its sole source. It also tries for such exhaustive detail that the narration almost literally never stops, while somehow making commercial success seem the easy part.
Real drama doesn't arrive until singer Al Bryant (Jarvis B. Manning Jr.) is replaced by David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes). There are four more musicals to opens this Broadway season, but it's difficult to imagine a performer more energized in any of them than Sykes. His superstar-making turn as Ruffin sums up that old adage about the brightest burning out the fastest.
"Jersey Boys" meets "Motown" in "Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations," the latest biographical/backstage rock and roll jukebox musical to hit Broadway and market itself to the baby-boomer demographic. And while not exactly profound or original, it makes for slick, straightforward, tuneful and altogether pleasant entertainment.
What makes Beg memorable is the sheer overwhelming talent of the cast. Even if no one character has enough time or space in the script to fill in the contours of a full personality beyond a few fast details - baritone Otis Williams liked his suits electric blue; Falsetto king Eddie Kendricks got the nickname Corn because he... loved cornbread! - they can still bring every sweet harmony and cross-step.
The big draw of course are those timeless Motown tunes-most of them written by Smokey Robinson and Norman Whitfield: "My Girl," "Ain't Too Proud To Beg," "Papa Was A Rolling Stone." And thankfully, Director Des McAnuff put the songs front and center, bringing out the best in his outrageously talented company. But when it comes to biographical shows, it's nearly impossible to break from the clichéd formulas-the rise from rags to riches, the ravages of fame, the usual demons: drugs, booze, family sacrifice; and all of it magnified by the ever-present specter of racism.
"Ain't Too Proud" arrived on Broadway Thursday night buoyed by a surge of nostalgia and a slew of Motown hits. But anyone who's seen the earlier jukebox shows "Jersey Boys" or "Motown: The Musical" is bound to feel a dull sense of déja vu.
But polished performances, slick choreography (by Sergio Trujillio) and a slate of 31 Motown tunes should satisfy audiences who might not be looking for probing storytelling, as long as the show delivers well-performed hits. That it does, as it centers on the story of the classic quintet of performers singing "Cloud Nine," "If You Don't Know Me By Now," "My Girl," "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" and the title song, among others - including some songs that weren't the group's own.
Told through the deep, memorable Motown catalog, the show, directed by Des McAnuff ("Jersey Boys"), works best when it relies on great songs like "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," "My Girl," "In the Still of the Night" (though many are frustratingly interrupted or cut short). Choreographer Sergio Trujillo gives the singers slick moves considerably more polished than the originals ever managed, while Robert Brill's efficient turntable set is highlighted by Peter Nigrini's projections that provide location and historical context.
'Ain't Too Proud," the new Temptations jukebox biomusical, is a Broadway musical for people who don't like Broadway musicals-or maybe for people who like only jukebox biomusicals. The score, which includes such chart-topping hits of the '60s and '70s as "My Girl" and "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," is terrific, as are the singing and pit band, but Sergio Trujillo's choreography is way too slick-the real-life Temptations moved like street-corner kids from Detroit, not glammed-up 42nd Street gypsies-and the projection-heavy set design is ploddingly dull. As for Dominique Morisseau's book, it sounds as though a roomful of ad executives wrote it.
It is Motown the Musical by way of Jersey Boys, with a soupçon of Dreamgirls in the Act One finale that makes you wish that the intragroup dynamics were more fully developed throughout. But Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo, who also collaborated on Jersey Boys, keep things speeding along: The conveyer belts and turntables of Robert Brill's set are hardly ever still, and the dancing represents a highly amped-up version of the Temptations' actual moves (sometimes at a slight cost to vocal precision). The songs do their work, and the ensemble casts shines whenever it gets a chance; Rashidra Scott makes an impression as Otis's ex-wife, for example, as does Saint Aubyn as Ruffin's peevish replacement, Dennis Edwards. As musical theater, Ain't Too Proud could generously be described as shameless. But as an evening of musical entertainment, it ain't too shabby.
There's a chilly irony at the shrink-wrapped heart of Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, the thrillingly performed and dramatically static jukebox musical on Broadway. This is a musical that's about (if it's about anything) the perils of fame. And a goose of fame is what it offers to the Temptations, the consummate R&B group that has been grooving in unison for almost six decades.
Ain't Too Proud - The Life and Times of The Temptations is further proof, as if we need it, that the term "jukebox musical" just isn't fair - to jukeboxes. Feed a juke some cash and it delivers music, free of the blunt exposition that passes for librettos in so many of these stage biographies. Even with source material as glorious as "My Girl," "Just My Imagination," "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" and the song that gives this production its title, the result feels less celebratory than ruthlessly efficient, like the treadmill device that's forever moving the ever-changing Temptations line-up on, off and around the Imperial Theatre's stage.
"Ain't Too Proud" has a wholly conventional structure, as if everyone involved didn't want to run any kind of counter-narrative to that of Williams or upset Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse), whose persona here is exactly like his persona in "Motown the Musical." Fascinating issues like the band's appeal to white audiences, its need to tour in the South, its internal debates over whether it should sing Smokey Robinson ballads or Norman Whitfield soul, the drug use among many of its members and the complexity of Williams' own personal life are brought up but quickly and often awkwardly dismissed. Such are the perils of doing legacy-creating shows about living people with ownership interests in the material.
What's interesting, though, is that so many of these songs are presented only in part, tossed in as if to whet our appetites only before the biographical plot, such as it is, trundles along. The ushers who seat you for Ain't Too Proud encourage you to clap, sing along, and respond to the show, and looking around, I could tell that my audience was hungry to do so. This was a house of fans. They wanted a nostalgic blowout concert, and as so many songs peeped in and out without a real finish, you could feel their applause anxiety growing. You can't build a whole musical out of climaxes, but you also don't want a house full of blue balls. And when the big finishes do come around, they don't quite smash through the ceiling. They're pleasing without being rapturous.