Jukebox musical 'Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations' dances smoothly through the years

"Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations" runs Jan. 25–30 - courtesy photo
courtesy photo
"Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations" runs Jan. 25–30
Over the past couple of decades, dozens of jukebox musicals mining the biographies of popular pop groups have made their way to Broadway, but few have equaled Jersey Boys, the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons show that set the standard for the genre. Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations reteams Jersey Boys director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo to work the same magic with Motown’s No. 1-selling group, and nearly succeeds thanks to peerless stagecraft and a powerhouse cast.

Marcus Paul James anchors the national national touring cast of Ain’t Too Proud as Temptations founder Otis Williams. His memoir, narrating the quintet’s rise from Detroit’s streets to global superstardom, formed the basis of Dominique Morisseau’s book for this musical. Along the way the show checkmarks many of the same plot points as Jersey Boys: youthful scrapes with the law; early acclaim, followed by artistic battles — in this case, with legendary producer Berry Gordy (Michael Andreaus — and a second-act tragedy leading to an elegiac ending. There’s even a supporting character with his own distinctive voice who became a star in their own right — here Smokey Robinson (Lawrence Dandridge), rather than Joe Pesci.

The difference is that while Jersey Boys gave each of its four founders their full due, the Temptations’ ever-changing roster means only a few of its members — chiefly the dynamic Elijah Ahmad Lewis as the egomaniacal David Ruffin — make much impact, and women are essentially invisible, aside than Williams’ long-suffering ex-wife Josephine (Najah Hetsberger). Ain’t Too Proud also attempts to provide insight into the origins of some of the group’s biggest hits as well as some near-misses (the group recorded “War” before Edwin Starr’s famous version, and didn’t want to record “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”), along with historical context about an explosive era in the Civil Rights Movement. The resulting script is inevitably superficial, and doesn’t really engage emotionally until its final moments.

But those flaws barely register as long as Ain’t Too Proud remains in motion, and McAnuff’s signature cinematic seamlessness imbues nearly every second of the show with hypnotically kinetic energy. Driven by Harold Wheeler’s full-bodied orchestrations of Motown’s best-loved classics — from the titular song and “Baby Love” to “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” and “You Can’t Hurry Love” — the cast smoothly grooves in perfect sync through every showstopper and scene change. Even the microphones and urinals dance on and off stage. Robert Brill’s minimalist scenic design consists of little more than a moving theater marquee, but Howell Binkley’s laser-focused lighting and Peter Nigrini’s monochromatic projections craft striking stage images that emphasize the singers’ iconic silhouettes.

Although it might not achieve the same heights as its creative team’s previous triumph, Ain’t Too Proud is guaranteed to send Orlando audiences out of the Dr. Phillips Center singing, heading home ready to dig that old vinyl copy of “My Girl” out of storage.

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