Ain’t Too Proud’s national tour has arrived, bringing the joy and energy of the Temptations to life at Broadway San Diego’s Civic Theatre through January 8th. Featuring music from The Legendary Motown Catalog and book by Dominique Morisseau, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations is a force of nature: after all, in two and a half hours, it manages to be a Motown concert tour, a history lesson, and an ode to the sound that has been sweeping America since 1960.
Told from the perspective of bandleader Otis Williams, Ain’t Too Proud as a play is structurally interesting, if a bit shallow. As the musical unfolds, we meet Otis (played by Michael Andreaus) as he makes the mistakes and decisions that ultimately lead him to find his calling in music. Otis searches for new bandmates and finds them in Paul (E. Clayton Cornelious), Melvin (u/s Jamari Johnson Williams), Eddie (Jalen Harris), and Al (Brett Michael Lockley) – replaced pretty quickly by David (u/s Dwayne P. Mitchell), the “Classic Five.” The storyline in its entirety spans decades with brief interludes for anecdotal stories, a survey course in Motown with the Temptations at its center.
But for what it lacks in depth, the show brings tenfold in zest. The singing and dancing of the production are next level – all performers are exceptional, athletic, and carry with them the spirit and liveliness of the era and the genre, elevated to fit a jukebox musical. Though I’d be hard pressed to choose a stand-out performer, that is simply because they are, across the board, phenomenal. Bringing contagious, kinetic energy, these actors do exactly what is needed to portray the timeline in which the Temptations navigate the industry and the nation, seeking wider (or as they quip in the show, “whiter”) appeal.
I was impressed in particular by the staging (credit to director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo) of the post-intermission tune “I Can’t Get Next to You.” While the catchy song allows each performer in turn to highlight their unique voices (and the physicality of their moves) to full capacity, the presentation itself is clever as well. In “I Can’t Get Next to You,” the creative team has designed an effect wherein each stanza of the song features a new perspective on the show, created by having the actors move their microphones directionally to face the wings and backstage and by flying in a variety of lighting elements. Through this choice, the audience space itself became dynamic – at times, we were watching the show from the house, but other times, we were transported to the wings or backstage. This is a memorable and innovative way to kick off Act II.
And while this is one of many scenes in which the lighting design (Howell Binkley) shines in particular, the combination of lights, costumes (Paul Tazewell), and scenic design (Robert Brill with projections by Peter Nigrini) throughout are outstanding. With lush textures ranging from sequins to cotton to brick to corrugated steel to silver velvet, and with creative shadows and frequently moving projections, there is a lively dynamic energy to the design elements of Ain’t Too Proud.
From purely a wish standpoint, while I understand that the focus of the production is the development and legacy of the Temptations as a group, I was left wondering about opportunities to elevate other themes which, despite inclusion in the script, were more quickly sidestepped. For example, pausing for intermission following Dr. King’s assassination could have allowed the playwright’s quote: “the music is colorblind, but the world isn’t” to resonate through the break. After all, crossover success (and transcendence of racial boundaries for musicians) certainly influenced the civil rights movement. Moving past that moment to drop the curtain on the firing of a band member felt, to me, less impactful, as well as a few minutes too late (as the first half felt quite long).
Furthermore, while the introduction of key women (Johnnie Mae, Josephine, Tammi Terrell, the Supremes…) in the timeline gives those talented performers a chance to show off their killer pipes, the way the roles are written feels superficial. I do wish that such powerful players in their own rights could have been portrayed with more dignity and less as distractions to the band’s rise to the top.
Those thoughts aside, I can’t help reflecting on “How Sweet It Is” to have the Ain’t Too Proud tour swing through San Diego; celebrating this iconic band and their influence through a high energy, talented production is definitely worth driving to the Civic in the rain.