Resisting Temptations: "Ain't Too Proud" begs for nostalgic indulgence

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday November 15, 2022
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The cast of 'Ain't Too Proud'
The cast of 'Ain't Too Proud'

Born at Berkeley Repertory and now playing at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of a post-Broadway national tour, "Ain't Too Proud" is not so much a musical as a deliciously slick nightclub act regularly interrupted by readings from a reference book.

Director Des McAnuff has applied dramatic structure and production style almost identical to those of his 2005 money-printer, "Jersey Boys," the story of the Four Seasons Michigan contemporaries, The Temptations. A modern-day old-timer, in this case Temps' founding member Otis Williams (Marcus Paul James) speaking from his death bed, recalls the formation, success, glories and tribulations of a celebrated American vocal group.

Scenes whiz by in a tidy chronological timeline. Sets and dialogue are minimal. The storytelling is carried by Williams' brief spoken interludes more than any dramatic interaction of the characters.

James, Harrell Holmes Jr., Jalen Harris, James T. Lane, and Elijah Ahmad Lewis ace the five-part harmonies of irresistible hits including "Get Ready," "My Girl," and "The Way You Do The Things You Do" (arranged to a Broadway sheen by Kenny Seymour) and dazzlingly synchronized footwork (choreographer Sergio Trujillo sets a high bar; they clear it with shiny finesse). It would be an absolute pleasure to see this show's cast in a straightforward concert format (Which you can actually do; see below).

But Otis' inelegant narration, written by playwright Dominique Morriseau ("Skeleton Crew"; "Pipeline"), feels like a superfluous stent jimmied into the heart of the proceedings (Morriseau won a MacArthur grant a year after "Ain't It Proud" debuted on Broadway, but this particular script feels like mercenary work). The show repeatedly soars toward musical euphoria, then hits prosaic arryhthmia.

The cast of 'Ain't Too Proud'  

The script for "Ain't Too Proud" is also particularly cringe-worthy in its efforts to draw connections between the evolution of The Temptations and American history. While it's worth noting that some of the group's music took on a darker, unsettled tone with the rise of the Civil Rights movement ("Runaway Child, Running Wild"; "I Wish It Would Rain"), it's an egregious overreach to tie the assassination of Martin Luther King to the death of Motown singer Tami Terrell, a one-time romantic partner of the Temptations' showboating David Ruffin.

As Ruffin, Elijah Ahmad Lewis delivers some of the show's most growlicious vocals and overtly athletic dance moves, literally splitting the difference between peak-slick Temptations style (when Motown Records pressured them to appeal to white audiences) and James Brown's more feral funk performances. Meanwhile, Jalen Harris brings a compelling Michael Jackson eeriness to his rendering of Eddie Kendricks (His forelock-like microphone further accentuates the alien vibe).

But overall, despite these character distinctions, The Temptations come across more as a five-headed creature than a group of unique personalities. Frankly, that's what Motown, known as The Hit Factory, hoped for as the original quintet gradually became Otis Williams and a revolving cast of replacement singers. The Temptations was about product, not people, universally resonant songs rather than unique individuals' stories.

Likewise, "Ain't Too Proud" leverages those great songs, rather than any distinctive narrative or original theatrical conceit, to distinguish itself from a crowded field of lukewarm jukebox biomusicals, from "Jersey Boys" to "Motown: The Musical" (ahem) to "A Beautiful Noise," Broadway's soon-to-open Neil Diamond hagiography.

The songs, the singing and the dancing are spectacular. Which may be enough for audience members more eager for a light night out than an insightful piece of theater. As an additional crowd-pleaser, the main cast will perform in an REAF benefit November 28; see below.

'Ain't Too Proud' through Dec. 4. $56-$256. Golden Gate Theatre. 1 Taylor St. (888) 746-1799.

One Night Only with the Cast of 'Ain't Too Proud' (benefit for Richmond/Ermet Aid Foundation). Nov. 28. Strand Theatre, 1127 Market St. $45-$69.

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