Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, Prince Edward Theatre, London
My first jukebox musical. Not knowing anything about The Temptations (although it turns out I did know their songs after all), I had no idea what to expect. Slick production with lit up backdrops and spot lights, as well as making 1970s flared suits look super cool was the result.
We follow Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks, and David Ruffin (the ‘Classic Five’ line up), although there were 27 of them along the way. The formation of the band in Detroit is fun, as Otis Williams recruits his singers, including navigating his way past a hard talking Momma and humourously stall stalking Berry Gordon. Still how they handle fame is the focus of the musical here and this is where I think the show loses its way.
It’s very unknowing and it’s as if they don’t learn or aren’t impacted at all from their life experiences. Set against the background of Civil Rights, the Vietnam War and American politics, The Temptations struggle with their image as the sweet talking, romantic first Motown Act to win a Grammy, wanting to be more politicised and use their platform to speak into the issues of the day. Life on the road also impacts their relationships — although Otis’s son is remarkably forgiving about his absent dad. And that’s the main issue here — there is no emotional tension particularly (in a long-lasting way) — there’s a terrible scene of domestic abuse in public, which happens, no-one says or does anything, and then is dropped again; at one point Otis finds the majority of the band doing drugs, refuses to join in and then it’s never mentioned again. Given how much the band were singing about respecting women, surely some irony here? Otis’s Gump-like phrase as narrator, ‘I don’t know why it happened, I wish it hadn’t happened’ doesn’t help either, as though he is full of regret, it makes him unknowing, passive and someone to whom things just happen. There’s a lack of insight here, of choice, of the push behind decisions. Why were The Temptations tempted? I guess we’ll never know… Things happen, but that’s ok because it’s time for another song! (which trivalises the battles they were going through in their lives). The saddest bit is that only two original Temptations are left at the end; it was a really emotional moment.
Yet the music, songs and high energy of the dance routines are the things that give this musical life — the cast are wonderful at bringing their characters to full formation as they whizz in and out of songs and routines, and life passes them by. Kudos to Sifiso Mazibuko as Otis Williams, Cameron Bernard Jones as Melvin Franklin, Kyle Cox as Paul Williams, Tosh Wanogho-Maud as David Ruffin (the band member who justwon’t leave) and Mitchell Zhangazha as Eddie Kendrick. The Berry Gordon/Smokey Robinson scenes energised things too.
Cleverly the musical also finds a way to incorporate women too (more than just as partners, love interests or helping with some neat costume changes), as they have a chart sing off against the Supremes — cue wonderful fish-tailed sequins all round. I’d like to see some reconsiderations in the costumes as the 1970’s flares were great — but the pink suits didn’t look like they fitted well and seemed to rumple quickly. As these are the main outfit for Act 2, perhaps add more starch? Fun too is how band members are moved on — via a walkway. Love the design of the set (even the curtain during the interval is a big neon band name) — it’s great. Entertaining too were the interactions between their Motown bosses and creatives, as well as their personally grumpy refusal to Funk (which didn’t work!)
Terrific and classy jukebox musical, but the overall writing could benefit the characters with some self-awareness, as a series of awful things happen to them and to others throughout the second Act without much emotional/personal impact, beyond the loss of band mates. For example, did it impact their music, who they were or did they deny it all and keep on going? I think this lack of empathy spread into the audience who seemed a bit non-plussed as to whether to clap along or listen reverentially. But do get ready, cos this is a show worth seeing! Given that Cloud Nine made them a hit, I think this needs more emphasis , it only turns up at the end of Act 2. It is wonderful hearing all the recognisable tunes though and going ‘yes, this is a Temptations song, I never knew….’
Like me and clueless about Temptations songs — you’ll experience ‘My Girl’, ‘Just My Imagination’, ‘Get Ready’, ‘For Once In My Life’, ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’, unexpectedly ‘Shout’, almost got to sing ‘War’ — but it went to Edwyn Collins, ‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone’, ‘Ball of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)’, ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg’ and ‘What Becomes of The Broken Hearted’.