There’s probably no better way to experience a music artist’s evolution than on a theater stage, when it's done right. While biopics and documentaries can track trajectories, showing early personal histories and inspirations, they lack the in-person element. And concerts alone don't provide this kind of context, of course. Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations has got it all, bringing the story of the legendary Motown group to live audiences with heart and, of course, lots of soul.
The show, which came to L.A. a few weeks ago and runs through the end of September, portrays The Temptations' humble beginnings, when narrator Otis Wlliams (played by Derrick Baskin) got some friends together from his Detroit neighborhood to pursue fame and fortune in the music business. He picked some real talents and soon they got the attention of Motown founder Berry Gordy, who helped them create their dynamic sound and dance-driven performance style. Ain't Too Proud is based on Williams' biographical book, and it covers all the expected Behind the Music–like plot points — creative control issues with Gordy, inflated egos, competitive band drama, womanizing and abuse, drug use and the struggle for equality that was occurring in the 1960s, when success for black performers didn’t necessarily mean respect and equality.
A theater marquee is the main backdrop, and life on the road provides the thematic thrust for this creative portrayal. Moving projections behind the actors help illustrate the historical moments that defined the era, and an impressive interchangeable set design helps move the story along, with additional performances by female contemporaries The Supremes and Tammi Terrell bringing some necessary female ferocity and charm to the mix.
Ultimately, it's the music and dancing that make this show. It may be a jukebox musical, packed with as much singing as speaking, but even when the story veers into cliché territory, it never goes full eye-roll thanks to the classic songs and nuanced, multitalented performances of them onstage. The Temptations were always known for mesmerizing synchronized choreography, and it's not only highlighted and explored here, it's elevated for a modern audience in a way that shows just how influential the mixture of movement and music was.
The actors are all top-notch singers and dancers (Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin, James Harkness as Paul Williams, Jawan M. Jackson as Melvin Franklin and Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendricks, to name a few) and any of them could be an R&B star today based on the vocals and moves they display in Ain't Too Proud. Shades of Michael Jackson and Prince, as well as more contemporary pop stars, come to mind as the group is seen fighting for the spotlight, adding and subtracting members, touring the world and trying to break the mold set by Motown. Though the lineup changed a lot over the years, the show suggests that this fact was not necessarily a bad thing, as each member brought as much magic as he did conflict to the group. Ultimately, the core members depicted in this production are all given their due, with Williams' reflections revealing not only their contributions but what their lives were like right up until their deaths (he's the group's only surviving original member).
Ain't Too Proud reunites director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo, who previously collaborated on the long-running Tony winner Jersey Boys, another jukebox musical, about The Four Tops. And Ain't Too Proud is heading for Broadway, where it will land at the Imperial Theater in the spring.
For fans of Motown, and soul music in general, this show is a must-see. I'm listing the songs in the show like a concert set list here because if hearing these gems performed well (with a live band) throughout the show doesn't sell it, I don't know what will: “Ain't Too Proud to Beg,” “Baby Love,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Cloud Nine,” “Come See About Me,” “Don't Look Back,” “For Once in My Life,” “Get Ready,” “Gloria,” “I Can't Get Next to You,” “I Could Never Love Another,” “I'm Losing You,” “I Want a Love I Can See,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” “If You Don't Know Me by Now,” “I'm Gonna Make You Love Me,” “In the Still of the Night,” “Just My Imagination,” “My Girl,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “Runaway Child, Running Wild,” “Shout,” “Since I Lost My Baby,” “Speedo,” “Superstar,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “War,” “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” “You Can't Hurry Love” and “You're My Everything.”
Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations runs through Sept. 30 at the Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; centertheatregroup.org/tickets/ahmanson-theatre/2018-19/aint-too-proud/.