'Ain't Too Proud' review – this Temptations musical has electrifying performances and smooth moves

Get ready, cause here they come! Read our review of the Temptations musical, Ain't Too Proud, currently playing at the Prince Edward Theatre through 2023.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

It’s Jersey Boys meets Motown via The Drifters Girl in this Broadway celebration of The Temptations. So yes, Ain’t Too Proud isn’t reinventing the wheel; it follows the expected jukebox musical beats, while packing in a staggering number of the band’s hits. But, thanks to that tremendous back catalogue and some dynamite performances, it’s toe-tapping West End entertainment.

Like that Four Seasons bio-musical, we get a narrated rags-to-riches tale that sees the group rise from humble beginnings (in this case the mean streets of Detroit) to chart success, only to succumb to infighting and issues like addiction. Ain’t Too Proud also adds racial tension to the mix, whether it’s heated discussion around “crossover” appeal — aka wooing white listeners — or bigots shooting at the tour bus in the Deep South.

However, we have just one storyteller here, and it’s Otis Williams. The only surviving member of the original Temptations, he still tours with a revamped version of the band, aged 81, and he made a touching appearance during the curtain call on press night. Dominique Morisseau’s book is based on his memoir — with mixed results.

Given that the oft-repeated ethos of The Temptations is that the group is more important than any one member, it’s ironic to then have Otis’s perspective so elevated. Naturally, he presents himself as a saint: he’s the eternal peacemaker, and everything he does is for the good of others. He even says that this is a God-given mission — although touring constantly means abandoning (and occasionally cheating on) his wife, who has to raise their son alone.

It’s also puzzling that, given this first-person resource, the tale comes out in such clichéd terms — but that’s perhaps the format, which requires Morisseau to pack in so much material. The sheer (if brutal) efficiency of the episodic storytelling is effective enough, and there are some witty touches in Des McAnuff’s smooth production, like the handling of the band’s many personnel changes. “Sometimes temps also stood for temporary,” quips Otis, as each departing member is whisked off the stage on a rolling platform.

There’s clever use of the songs to capture the mood as well. “Runaway Child, Running Wild” underscores Otis’s criminal youth, “Since I Lost My Baby” accompanies the romantic travails of several band members, and “I Wish It Would Rain” powerfully evokes the grief around both a big personal loss and the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Most importantly, the performance of these songs is utterly electrifying. The cast perfectly match The Temptations’ polished R&B harmonies, and Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is an inspired combination of the group’s authentic original moves, but with a contemporary update. So you get the synchronised finger snaps, step points, and head wobbles, but everything is faster, the levels are more extreme, and there’s extra swagger, groove, and sensuality.

The minimal set allows for fast scene changes and keeps the focus on the performers and their fabulous costumes (courtesy of Paul Tazewell) — from The Temptations’ silver suits to the Supremes in slinky, figure-hugging red sequins. Projections add some context, like newsreel footage, and that black-and-white video adds to the sleek monochrome aesthetic.

Sifiso Mazibuko anchors the show well as Otis, while Cameron Bernard Jones has fun with Melvin Franklin’s velvety bass, Kyle Cox is an endearing Paul Williams, and Mitchell Zhangazha brings firepower to Eddie Kendricks, plus a creamy falsetto. As Al Bryant, Michael James Stewart nails the familiar wail of “Shout”, and Akmed Junior Khemalai is a shrewd operator as Motown boss Berry Gordy.

But the clear standout here is Tosh Wanogho-Maud in a blistering turn as the ultra-talented but fatally screwed-up David Ruffin. From his first appearance, crooning “My Girl”, he’s the ultimate showman — Wanogho-Maud supplying explosive dance moves, soul-piercing vocals, and megawatt charisma.

He also nails David’s darker side. His father was abusive, and David repeats the pattern by beating up his girlfriend, along with drug-taking and diva antics. It clearly stems from pain and insecurity, though; the tragedy is that he finally finds a family with The Temptations, only to destroy it.

However, Wanogho-Maud’s live-wire performance is so compelling that we miss him whenever he’s not on stage — a problem in the second half. His story doesn’t get enough space, but then nor do any of the issues raised here, including the intersection of art and protest (“Music is colour blind,” bleats their commercially minded white manager), or the spiritual element: interestingly, many of the Temps had gospel roots, and still use that language of faith.

Another issue is that, like Jersey Boys, women get short shrift. Otis’s wife is reduced to a nag, the Supremes are objects of desire, and domestic violence victim Tammi Terrell quickly disappears. It’s also hard not to sense the heavy hand of Motown branding: that giant “M” often appears on stage, and though there’s a brief reference to the label’s possibly exploitative contracts, it’s quickly hand-waved away.

So, that admirable attempt to add more heft to a jukebox show is only a partial success. But how can you resist phenomenal performances of “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, the mighty title number, and many more? Plus get ready for Wanogho-Maud: he’s worth the ticket price alone.

Ain't Too Proud is at the Prince Edward Theatre. Book Ain't Too Proud tickets on London Theatre.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

Photo credit: Ain't Too Proud (Photo by Johan Persson)

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