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Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations

  • Theatre, Musicals
  • 3 out of 5 stars
Ain’t Too Proud, Price Edward Theatre, 2023
Photo: Johan Persson

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

This competent Temptations jukebox musical never really makes a particularly strong case for the legendary group

If some jukebox musicals suffer from a flimsy plot, then Broadway import ‘Ain’t Too Proud’ has the opposite problem. This story of Motown vocal quintet The Temptations has more plot complications than its stars have dapper satin suit jackets. I didn't know a massive amount about the group, so was astonished that 27 different guys have been in this ever-changing quintet through its 63 (and counting) year history, as it fragmented under the weight of egos, addiction, prejudice and the cruelties of age. Playwright Dominique Morisseau tells their stories with more efficiency than emotion, only hinting at the pain underneath their silky smooth harmonies.

The breakneck narrative of the group's rise is narrated by its longest-standing member Otis, who wrote the memoir on which this show is based. Perhaps that’s why it feels like the book toes the party line a bit, acting as a theatrical victory lap for a band that's had no shortage of accolades. All the expected beats are here. Young Otis (Sifiso Mazibuko) starts out as a plucky fish out of water in ’60s Detroit. But when he discovers that this is a city with vocal groups bebopping on every street corner, he's right at home. Soon, the original five has assembled: Otis, Paul (Kyle Cox), Eddie (Mitchell Zhangazha), Melvin (Cameron Bernard Jones) and David (Tosh Wanogho-Maud), delighting home crowds with smooth Motown numbers like their breakout hit, ‘My Girl’. The vocal performances here are on point, complete with spine-tingling falsetto and rumbly bass.

But although director Des McAnuff was at the helm of award-winning smash ‘Jersey Boys’, which put the music centre stage, it feels like the songs are edged out a bit here. A lot of them won't be familiar to people who don't remember the group’s ’60s heyday, and their brief airings here in faithful arrangements don't make an especially powerful argument that they're more than tuneful-but-dated kitsch.

Still, things do hot up in the second act, which goes deep into the bleaker passages of the band's history. There are brushes with murderous racists south of the Mason-Dixon Line, a litany of premature deaths, and even a scene where the group freebase in their dressing room before a gig: you don't get brushes with Class As in most jukebox musicals. This is where their moody 1972 funk hit ‘Papa was a Rollin' Stone’ comes into its own, becoming the brooding backdrop to a brief but powerful exploration of Otis's guilt about his neglect of his own son.

There are so many other individual arcs Morisseau could have pulled out and emphasised. But in trying to cover massive themes like racism and domestic violence in passing, this show risks making light of them: a scene where a female fan's bum is grabbed gets an awkward laugh from the audience.

I left the theatre knowing a lot more about The Temptations without quite understanding what this clean-cut group's appeal was, in an era with so many more authentic, outspoken acts. It’ll no doubt play well to existing fans, but I’m not sure it’ll get new ones to sing their praises.

Written by
Alice Saville


£32.50-£125. Runs 2hr 30min
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