Review: ain’t too proud The Life and Times of The Temptations

by Lynn on October 17, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book by Dominique Morisseau

Based on the book, “The Temptations by Otis Williams”

Music and lyrics by The Legendary Motown Catalog           +

Directed by Des McAnuff

Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo

Scenic Design by Robert Brill

Costumes by Paul Tazwell

Lighting by Howell Binkley

Sound by Steve Canyon Kennedy

Projection design by Peter Nigrini

Cast: Saint Aubyn

Derrick Baskin

Marqell Edward Clayton

James Harkness

Jeremy Hope

Jawan M Jackson

Rashidra Scott

Ephraim Sykes

Nasia Thomas

Christian Thompson

A run down memory lane of some of the greatest hits of the rhythm and blues group The Temptations with a smattering of biography. ain’t too proud The Life and Times of The Temptations is a show for those who think longingly of the music of the 60s and 70s.

 The Story. This is about the rhythm and blues juggernaut that was The Temptations, from their early days (the 1960s) in Detroit when Otis Williams and his boyhood friend Melvin Franklin formed a singing group. Williams then added Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin and after searching for a distinctive name became The Temptations.

The basic biographical points are made in the broadest strokes. They sang where they could and came to the attention of major music honcho Berry Gordy of Motown Records who signed them and they were on their way. Smokey Robinson initially wrote their hit songs. At the height they were the number one rhythm and blues group. With fame came pressure. Outside relationships were tested. The members of the group squabbled. There was drug and alcohol abuse. All this took its toll on the group and their relationships. David Ruffin was replaced. This caused further rifts in the group, until one by one they either drifted away or died.

 The Production. Director Des McAnuff has a love of the rock, rhythm and blues music of the 1960s and 70s. He has directed various shows that celebrate that music: The Who’s Tommy, (based on the Who’s 1969 rock opera) Jesus Christ Superstar (Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1970s rock opera) Jersey Boys (about the 60s group The Four Seasons), ain’t too proud The Life and Times of the Temptations (on its way to Broadway) and Summer (about 1970s pop star, Donna Summer, also on Broadway). Excluding Summer which I haven’t seen, McAnuff has a blueprint for how to do these shows which he has repeated with ain’t too proud The Life and Times of the Temptations.

The production is a bombardment to the eyes and ears. Robert Brill’s set is a constant movement of panels flowing in from and out to the wings or up to the flies and down to mid-air. Howell Binkley’s eye-popping lighting would not be out of place at a rock-concert, with beams and shafts of light lasering into the audience, sweeping the stage or blinking all over the space. Peter Nigrini’s projections that travel across the top of the moving set pieces, are a constant reminder of where these men started (Detroit) to the places to which they toured (Los Angeles, London, Paris, New York, back to Detroit. There are projections of notable historical events as well (the Detroit riots, the murder of Martin Luther King, etc.)  Interestingly there is almost no indication of when this took place, I assume because we are supposed to know.

And then there are the Temptations themselves with their blended harmonies, their soaring voices and the synchronized moves. Otis Williams, the ‘leader’ (a laid-back Derrick Baskin), Paul Williams (James Harkness), Melvin Franklin, (Jawan M. Jackson with his deep voice and imposing stature), Eddie Kendricks, the creator of their moves, (played by the engaging Jeremy Pope) and David Ruffin the showman with the powerful voice who never missed an opportunity to do the splits, (played by the energetic Ephraim Sykes).

Choreographer Sergio Trujillo looked at hours of videos and film of The Temptations performing to get a sense of their choreographed moves and then he created his own vocabulary for the group for this show. He started with the initial swaying, synchronized moves, referenced when it was decided to engage the female fan base by delicately outlining a woman’s body as they sang. That delicacy lasted one song. Then Trujillo’s moves became more muscular, aggressive, athletic, with fist punches and pelvis thrusts. Was he foreshadowing the moves of later singers who would ‘borrow’ the Temptation’s routines? When Detroit erupted in violence, the choreography of the group was angry and defensive. That reference to the political climate is touched on and then the group moves back into focusing on its own problems. Song after song saw choreography that became more breathless and sweat flinging. Of the whole creative team Trujillo’s shows a real imagination and creativity of how to create fresh choreography of the group, but still put them in a wider world.

For the most part, the acting is irrelevant, except for a lovely, detailed performance from Rashidra Scott as Josephine, Otis’ long suffering wife.

Comment. The show is billed as: ain’t too proud The Life and Times of The Temptations. That’s wishful thinking. Writer Dominique Morisseau is a very gifted writer but you wouldn’t know it from her paltry book for the show. She drops little dots of information really to act as a link for the songs. There is precious little character development no matter if we connect the dots. For example Otis Williams’ unhappy relationship with Josephine is handled in about three scenes—she gets pregnant and they marry; he tours and communicates by phone from the road; and when he does come home she says she’s met someone else and he’s sorry it didn’t work out! All in about three scenes.  The ‘times’ of The Temptations are given short-shrift. Aside from references to the riots in Detroit and the death of Martin Luther King we don’t know if anything in the outside world touches any of these men. There are practically no dates projected or otherwise that tell us the time frame of the Temptations trajectory. Are we supposed to know by osmosis? How about those of us who liked the music of The Temptations but focused our musical world on Broadway musicals. A little context please. I don’t blame Morisseau for this. She is adhering to the McAnuff blue-print-formula for creating this kind of musical.

As with Des McAnuff’s previous show Jersey Boys you begin to wonder if this is really a concert of The Temptations’ greatest hits—we hear: “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, “My Girl”, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” “Shout,”  “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” (and of the 31 songs, some are sung by The Supremes, the Temptations’ contemporaries). But then that sketchy book gets in the way. It then becomes the monotony of, “And then we sang, and then we recorded and then we won this award, and then we found another singer”.

In sum, the singing in the show is terrific. The dancing is energetic and intoxicating even when it’s more and more aggressive. But the intensity of the efforts of all concerned to make us like the show is overwhelming and rather tedious. We are bludgeoned into submission.

David Mirvish Presents:

Opened: Oct. 16, 2018.

Closes: Nov. 17, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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1 Daniel Coo October 17, 2018 at 11:50 am

Fair enough Lynn, but I think I got more out of it. This show wisely puts the music first, because the struggle is how to advance R & B music. Is that a worthwhile goal? This show and these lives emphatically answer Yes. Its gospel roots should remind us that R & B is inspirational, celebratory and ultimately, it is praise. This is a survivor story, and despite all that challenges and changing times, this music, embodied by these performers, continues to be uplifting.