Scott Klavan: Ain’t Too Proud
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations
Broadway—The Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th Street, New York, NY
Written by Dominique Morrisseau
Directed by Des McAnuff
Reviewed by Scott Klavan on August 2, 2019
I’ll start with a confession: I’m a snob. There is much about modern popular American culture that I look down on and abhor, even consider a humiliating insult. These elements feature overpriced tickets, large, loud crowds, long lines, and a mediocre product posing as high-quality. Last weekend, I embarked on an evening of dinner and theater-going that promised to plunge me deep into this mainstream world. Filled with anticipatory dread, I tossed and turned the night before, fouling the sheets with my sweat. The Friday evening would take me first to a quick meal at a NYC hamburger chain and then a performance of a “Juke-Box” Broadway musical, a form of theater that I have studiously avoided, in fact, one that I have never seen. What began with predictable misery ended in humbling surprise.
I once saw on TV the guy who created the ubiquitous ShakeShack burger restaurants—seemingly lifting the concept from the Midwest’s Steak & Shake chain—describing in pretentious detail how every inch of each restaurant had been carefully designed and thought out to create the most effective…CUT TO: hoards of screaming mostly young people jostling in poorly orchestrated lines to order hamburgers and fries, “Credit Only Here!” “John, your food!” “Create a space!”, picking up trays with their food shoving through the chaos to find no seating and eat standing up. For my first time at a “Shack,” I was pinned against the wall, watching people yell their order, then join me standing elbow-to-elbow with their prize. My worst judgment of pop culture justified, I tried to be contemplative, dispassionate; I found it curious that people would actually choose to come to such a degrading cacophonous place; no hamburger is good enough. As I was continually pushed around dismayingly and shouted at in my ear, I began to reflect: “I know I’ve hurt people in life, yes…I’ve been selfish, I have caused pain…but it wasn’t intentional, I never really meant to…I don’t know if I deserve…” I don’t think ShakeShack is Hell–I don’t, Hell probably doesn’t serve food—but it’s a way station, one with a warning, a lesson. I decided not to eat, and was swept briskly out by satiated, full strangers. I breathed in the rank air of 8th Avenue and with a relieved smile, tried to find the Positive: I’m alive, I thought, there’s still time. I promise. I’ll be a better man; I know I can be.
My next stop was The Imperial Theatre, right around the corner on 45th St., and the musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, one of a series of Broadway shows in recent years that feature established hit songs of pop musicians as the basis for their stories and presentations. I had always figured these plays would be loosely thrown together, garish and cheesy crap money-grabs, and so, it would be the first one for me. While I rarely drink before a play, I stopped at the Imperial theater bar, located in what is the lobby, really, it’s there even before you swipe your ticket—and got two wines for fortification—one for my partner, who sometimes admits to being my wife—poured into two covered plastic cups which might have been borrowed from ShakeShack. The price for two of the smallest size: $40. Once inside, I sat down, tore the cover off, sucked down the wine, and drank half my wife’s. Sitting in an aisle seat, my stomach rumbling with hunger, I envisioned people frenziedly climbing over me stepping down hard on my toes to dance in the aisles during the musical numbers, or forcing me, ShakeShack-style, out there to shake it myself. Preparing, I wondered if people still pushed their hands up to the ceiling/sky as joyously hip celebration: would that be acceptable? Or would I be chastised or even pummeled, by tourists, Shack fries falling out of their pants as they kicked me and swung their fists—
The show began.
But, let’s go back.
So-called Jukebox Musicals have been a staple of Broadway for roughly twenty years. The smash Mama Mia! with the music of ABBA was one of the first, and made the form a big profitable concept. It was followed by hits like Rock of Ages (1980s Rock), Jersey Boys (Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons), directed by Ain’t Too Proud’s Des McAnuff; Beautiful (Carole King); disappointing short-runs including The Cher Show, Escape To Margaritaville (Jimmy Buffett), Summer: The Donna Summer Musical (another McAnuff piece), and in-betweens like American Idiot (Green Day), Motown: The Musical and Million Dollar Quartet (country stars including Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.) Some of the lesser shows have recouped by national/international touring. Rock of Ages became a movie, Mama Mia! too, with a sequel; Jersey Boys was filmed by Clint Eastwood. Up or down, loud or soft, the Broadway Juke Box is here to stay.
Ain’t Too Proud started at Berkeley Rep in CA, and played Washington, D.C. at The Kennedy Center, the Ahmanson in LA, and Princess of Wales in Toronto, before opening on Broadway. It tells the story of the Temptations, one of classic Motown rhythm and blues best groups, rising from the rough streets of 1950s Detroit to international acclaim, emerging, along with Diana Ross & The Supremes, as one of the first soul acts to crossover to the white TV and record-buying audience.
Their on-stage tale is narrated throughout by Otis Williams (the last surviving original Temptation, and an executive producer here, played by Derrick Baskin). As Otis describes it, we see the gathering of the first Temptations: Paul Williams (James Harkness), famously bass-voiced Melvin Franklin (Jawan M. Jackson), Eddie Kendricks (Jelani Remy) and later, their soon-to-be lead singer David Ruffin (at this performance played by Marcus Paul James, filling in for Ephraim Sykes), a brilliantly gifted, volatile man, whose abusive childhood gradually leads him to narcissistically erratic behavior and drug use. The Temptations are signed by Motown’s innovative and egocentric head, Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse), and turn out a long string of hits, including “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,”,“Get Ready,” and “My Girl.” Years pass and the non-political group struggles to find its place in the ‘60s Civil Rights movement. Personal rivalries, drug and alcohol problems, and aging, cause the Temptations to break apart—Ruffin is fired—and reunite. While many of the original group come to sad untimely ends, the Temptations survive as lauded pioneers of R & B. Through it all, Otis, whose career damages his home life with wife and son Lamont (Shawn Bowers), remains the reasonable man, the rock.
We return to the Imperial, and when the lights come on and the show begins, any cynicism and reluctance to give in to Ain’t Too Proud is blown away by the sheer explosive talent on the stage. The show is fast-moving, consistently entertaining, builds to blazing excitement and last, touching sentiment. Veteran Juke Box man McAnuff, the former artistic director of Canada’s Stratford fest, director emeritus of La Jolla Playhouse, stages it with bright straightforwardness, grabbing and keeping our attention, using turntables, lights, and minimalist rolling sets to take us through locales from Detroit to down south, then NY and LA TV on-camera sets. The book by Dominque Morrisseau—playwright of several recent works including Lincoln Center’s Pipeline—may stray into standardized talk, but also creates compelling thumb-nail sketches of dozens of different people, and the five main Temptations are specifically defined. Themes—the singers wonder why whites can’t “crossover” to them; the tension between group sacrifice and personal ego—are thoughtful and worthwhile. Maybe most important, the “feel” of the play is truly successful. It takes what could have been, frankly, a shallow, boiler-plate Juke Box, and makes it warm, human, adult, real. It gets to you.
There isn’t enough space or positive words to compliment the large number of fine performances here. Every single actor/singer does their job with outstanding expert skill. In multiple roles including the Supremes, Candice Marie Woods, Nasia Thomas, Taylor Symone Jackson, and Rashidra Scott, are beautiful and sharp. Jahi Kearse is dynamically pompous as Berry Gordy; Saint Aubyn vivid and hilarious as Dennis Edwards, who took over vocals for the faltering Ruffin; Shawn Bowers heartfelt as Otis’s grown son Lamont.
The five main Temptations are played with a tireless energy, intensity, and full emotion by Derrick Baskin, James Harkness, Jawan M. Jackson, Jelani Remi and on this day, Marcus Paul James. Baskin runs the play with authority and decency, a perfect Everyman. James ends the first act with a ferocious blast of torment, charting Ruffin’s disintegration. These five execute fantastically the amazing moves of choreographer Sergio Trujillo, mixing original Temptations routines with modern variations; the dancing is jaw-dropping.
Walking out of the Imperial Theatre—quickly bypassing ShakeShack—the once-snobbish reviewer had a thought. When American popular culture works, it is as profound as deep Greek philosophy, complex British poetry, giant German symphonies. It is a main reason thousands of people brave danger to try to come to live in this country during any given week: to escape privation and brutality and find a place to enjoy Life for a little while before it ends.
Ain’t too proud to be proud to have seen Ain’t Too Proud.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, Warner Bros. and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival. He directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater and at the United Solo Festival. Scott directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. In 2017, he directed and co-wrote with Del Fidanque Off-Line and directed Night Shadows by Lynda Crawford, in Emerging Artists Theatre’s (EAT) New Work Series. In 2019, he directed a 60-minute version of the Sondheim/Lapine classic Into the Woods cast solely with senior actors that was written up in The New York Times. He is a Lifetime Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop. He teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations.