Theater Review

Touring ‘Ain’t Too Proud’ at PPAC

‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’ is as much a hit song by The Temptations as the goal for this musical about their lives


PROVIDENCE – Biographical jukebox musicals are, by their very nature, highly predictable and easily digestible creatures. They all use the immensely familiar music generated by a popular recording artist or group to help tell the warts-and-all stories about that artist or group.

Typically, the music takes precedence, so those stories – which serve as connective tissue for the song list – can be easily summed up in a single sentence. “The Boy From Oz,” for instance, explores singer-pianist-songwriter Peter Allen’s flamboyant existence and successful career before they were snuffed out by AIDS. “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” delves into the disco diva’s battles with the white, male power brokers in her life. And “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations” is about, well, their life and times.

The musical tells us that a lot of that time was spent performing the hit singles that became the R&B soundtrack of the lives for a generation of teens growing up during the 1960s and 1970s. And, during much of the time, the five-member Motown Records group was busy repeatedly replacing its members each time someone left or died. Over the years, there have been over two dozen Temptations.

And yet most of the five magnificent triple-threat performers playing the original members of the group in the current Broadway national tour – Michael Andreaus as Ottis Williams, Harrell Holmes Jr. as Melvin Franklin, Jalen Harris as Eddie Kendricks, Elijah Ahmad Lewis as David Ruffin and E. Clayton Cornelius as Paul Williams – were with the tour when it first came through the Providence Performing Arts Center in 2022. And they have been with the tour since its launch in 2021. These performers haven’t lost a step, lost their incredible vocal range or lost their passion for performing. These Temptations sound and move close enough to the real deal to cause the hairs on your arms to tingle.

Admittedly, storytelling about the group’s attrition grows tiresome after a while. And it’s a one-sided bit of storytelling as well, for the musical is based on the 1988 memoir of group founder and last remaining original Temptation, Otis Williams. It’s Williams’ character (played by a very congenial Andreaus) who serves as the show’s narrator and from whose direct-address perspective this tale is told.

The script for “Ain’t Too Proud” was written by the gifted and provocative author Dominique Morisseau (“Paradise Blue,” “Detroit '67,” “Skeleton Crew”), whose job it seems was to counterbalance Williams’ reflections on the clashing egos and personal demons of his original brothers in arms with dialogue that makes these fellows more appealing. Her pandering works, for it is easy to adore the Williams character even though he abandons his underage wife and newborn child for the road. The same goes for Motown mastermind Berry Gordy (played by a suave Jeremy Kelsey), who in life was a brilliant but unlikable dictator. It’s as if Morisseau was playing The Temptations song “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” on repeat while writing this musical.

It matters little, really, for it’s easy to get lost in all The Temptations’ greatest hits that are rolled out in the course of the evening, supported by a superb orchestra (including local musicians Brian O'Neill and Mike Ambroszewski on percussion, Mike Piepman on trumpet/flugel horn, Bill Vint on reeds, Walt Bostian on trombone, Zoia Bologovsky on violin, and Amy Ripka on viola) and conducted by Jonathan Smith. Songs like “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “I Wish It Would Rain” are performed in their entirety, others in short form and all with the group’s slick signature choreography that has been wonderfully re-envisioned by Sergio Trujullo. Some songs pop up as a narrative device where the lyrics and music expand on the dialogue. Others occur in the guise of performance during a studio recording session or a television broadcast. It all works.

The production itself is visually stunning, courtesy of the constantly shifting kinetic design of Robert Brill (scenic), Howell Binkley (lighting) and Peter Nigrini (projection). Paul Tazewell’s costumes are perfectly period. And director Des McAnuff keeps everything moving at a rapid pace, making the two-and-a-half hour run time seem so much shorter.

“Ain’t Too Proud” touches on the politics of the time – how could it not – but, mostly, it is built to entertain. If you love the music, you’ll love the musical.

BOB ABELMAN  is an award-winning theater critic who formerly wrote for the Austin Chronicle and Cleveland Jewish News.


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