Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations

Prince Edward Theatre

A blinking billboard proclaims The Temptations at the Fox Theatre. A booming American voice jovially tells us to turn off our phones and topically makes a joke about unwrapping our lozenges now. A generation who grew up with The Temptations on record as I did with Britney Spears on CD shuffle in their seats… what has Broadway brought us this time?

Turns out, a winner baby! Having WOWed the Yanks back in 2019, picking up accolades for pretty much everything from Sergio Trujillo’s choreography to Des McAnuff’s directing, and Dominique Morisseau’s lighting script. Now us lucky Londoners have until January 2024 to catch Howell Binkley’s lights and Steve Canyon Kennedy’s sound. All combine into a pile of Tonys, Olivier’s, and Drama Desk statues reaching up to the ceiling. But how does a musical about an American band still very much going (with mainly new faces ofc) land with the British public?

Unsurprisingly really well. As mentioned already The Temps heyday of 1960-1980 are a little before my time. Though as a classic music lover, their careers along with that of The Supremes within the iconic record label Motown meant their music was very much on my radar.

This musical is a bouncing ride, never lagging, never stopping, pushing onward with soul, funk, and feeling. Started in the late 50s in Detroit by Otis Williams the group survived multiple personal and professional challenges. Morphing as they lost one singer after another to fame, drugs, and ego. Their rise boosted Motown into global fame along with being one of the first crossover artists to move into the white charts. Their experience of the music industry mirrors the changing times of the 60s and 70s and the way race and music within America (and to a lesser degree internationally) are inexorably linked. This unending career has given the world the hits we still know and love today, My Girl, Just My Imagination, Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone, Get Ready, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg to name just a few.

But enough history, you could google all this after all couldn’t you? Robert Brill’s set is sleek and simple yet appealingly effective. In mainly black and white hues, with nice dashes of self-aware humour, the billboards charting the group’s rise swing up and down bisecting the space. Furniture and sometimes band members are whipped on/off stage on moving sliders, providing seamless transitions and a few much-needed giggles. The boards glide away to allow the all-embracing choreography to take centre stage. With performers like these, all you need is some glitzy backlights, and the space to let them fly.

And boy oh boy do they fly. Trujillo’s dance numbers are less sections and are more of a constant underscoring, that never lets up. The actors especially the 5-7 Temps are like sweat fountains, dashing around the changing space creating laser-precise routines before our amazed eyes. I am scared that like an overworked racehorse, one will simply drop down, and be replaced by another, the body quickly dragged off stage by a silk trouser leg. Magnificently capturing the moves of the act but also the exorbitant pressure of touring, dancing, singing, recording, and trying to have a personal life that supergroups face.

Admittedly the premise of the story isn’t anything you haven’t seen before. Dreamgirls with boys. Jersey Boys with soul (which both McAnuff and Trujillo both worked on). The “price of fame” narrative plays out over and over again on stage and screen as if reassuring us lay people that world renown isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. However, in The Temp’s case, it does seem even more tragic, as fame proves uniquely fatal for some most members.

It’s McAnuff’s racing directing, the snappy choreography, and a slew of imperturbable performances from the fab 5/7. Sifiso Mazibuko as Otis Williams is our narrator and shapes the wide-eyed country boy from Texas into the father figure and backbone of the group. He injects such genuine warmth and hope into the role, as so much of the narrative progression hangs in his hands. Vocally the standard is towering for all The Temps but taking one of the many summits of song is our American import, Matt Manuel. Star of the Broadway production playing the tortured and talented David Ruffin. One of the originals of the group but not for long (William’s joking it could stand for temporary as well as temptation) an agent of chaos and creation within the group. Cameron Bernard Jones’s (Melvin Franklin) rumbling bass knocks our socks off as does Mitchell Zhangazha’s liquid falsetto in the role of Eddie Kendricks. Kyle Cox is our last original playing Paul Williams the spirit of the group. Lovingly naïve at the start, having a swooping character arch into misery by the end.

The only detractor from this gambolling musical is a small one. The group themselves are all they need to be, and then some. However, some of the supporting roles, girlfriends/wives/sons/fellow acts at Motown either are squandered in the shadows or are not given enough space to grow. Their performances aren’t on the same level and seem little thought about.

The Grammys, Billboard hits, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame awards are bought with the expected tax of personal relationships, substance abuse, and infighting. We as an audience do love to see this kind of cathartic tragedy of those that fly so high. Yet a thread of reality, crafted out of their signature flash and style means the musical dodges any yawning trench of the cliche. Touching on heartbreak in the same breath as blasting a thumping psychedelic soul number, over 50 years fly by yet never feel rushed. The legacy of a group that won’t be stopped is explained and celebrated. Almost 27 members later and crossing not only musical race lines but also historic millennial lines, there is a unique spark in the story of The Temptations, one this musical zestfully recreates.

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