To do a Broadway bio-musical about a famous music group or musician, it should not only have the music that the audience will groove to, it should be engaging. Sometimes it succeeds (“Jersey Boys,” “Beautiful”), and sometimes it fails (“Summer,” “Baby, It’s You,” “Motown”). Well, I’m glad to report that “Ain’t Too Proud,” the musical that looks back at the highs and lows of the world-famous Motown Records group, The Temptations, belongs in the former category.
Now reopening at the Imperial Theatre after a 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19, “Ain’t Too Proud” is a rollicking, fast-paced, stand-up-and-dance crowd-pleaser, and serves as an urban cousin to its musical ancestor, “Jersey Boys”, which is soon to reopen Off-Broadway in November. Whereas “Jersey Boys” takes a look at the ‘60s rock-n’-roll boy group, The Four Seasons, “Ain’t Too Proud” examines The Temptations’ road to success in a nation of change during the ‘60s, ‘70s, and the ’80s. It’s crazy enough that both shows share the same director, Des McAnuff.
The Temptations are comprised of five singers, Otis Williams (Nik Walker, playing the only surviving member of the original group), the deep-voiced Melvin Franklin (Jawan M. Jackson), Eddie Kendricks (Jelani Remy), Paul Williams (James Harkness), and the dynamic and temperamental David Ruffin (Matt Manuel) who was the Kanye West of his time before Kanye existed. As a vocal group, they came to Motown from their Detroit hometown to make a mark as music superstars. As the years progressed between the mid-1960s and the 1980s, the group scored with chart-topping hits such as “My Girl,” “Get Ready,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Just My Imagination,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (the song that gives the show its title). But like many groups, there were fights and struggles, both racial and physical, as the group tried to stick together and make great music for everyone. To this day, a new group of Temptations, Otis Williams included, continues to perform as they keep the spirit and music of the group alive.
The show is acted very well by a winning cast. Among the acting standouts is Walker, playing Otis, as he breaks the fourth wall and takes the audience along to see how the group reached to the top, and Manuel as Ruffin as he tries to stay true to his group mates while struggling with drugs and hogging the spotlight from the rest of the group.
McAnuff’s excellent direction makes this show run as fast as a rush-hour Amtrak Acela express train. I’m now looking forward to seeing what he does with his Broadway revival of “The Who’s Tommy,” should it happen next year or in 2023. Dominique Morisseau has crafted a first-class libretto as she conveys the group’s journey into stardom amid the civil rights movement of the ‘60s, which showed that America had a long way to go to accept equality for all.
Sergio Trujillo’s Tony-winning choreography is oh-so fascinating, and Harold Wheeler’s orchestrations are faithful to the sounds and the beats of the Motown songs presented here. Peter Nigriri’s projections, Robert Brill’s sets, and the late Howell Binkley’s lighting are right on the mark bringing the action to life on the Imperial stage, and Paul Tazewell’s costumes match well to the Motown style of the time.
After a nearly two-year dark period, we all need something to lift our spirits and entertain us. “Ain’t Too Proud” is definitely the feel-good tonic that we need now. For that, Broadway is proud to have it back. “Ain’t Too Proud” is playing at the Imperial Theatre on 249 West 45th Street (between 8th Avenue and Broadway) in Manhattan. For tickets, go to telecharge.com, todaytix.com, or call 212-239-6200.