Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations
Also see Patrick's review of Colonialism Is Terrible, but Phở Is Delicious
Everything that was right about that first outing (at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theater) is right about this touring production: the cast is stunning, the choreography (by Sergio Trujillo) thrilling, the set design is evocative and flexible, and the music... well, it's some of the best R&B music ever recorded. Unfortunately, what didn't work in that premiere production–Dominique Morisseau's clunky book–is still the show's biggest problem.
But if all you care about are those amazing tunes (many of them written by Smokey Robinson or Norman Whitfield), the dance moves, and soulful voices that can both purr with tenderness and roar with passion and emotion, Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations will fit your bill perfectly.
To start with, there is enough singing talent on stage to headline any number of shows. When Devin Holloway cuts loose on "Gloria" (and other numbers), you may be as shocked as I was when he left the stage after his character left the group. How could a voice with that power, filled with energy and pathos be sent into the wings so early in the proceedings? As Otis Williams (the group's founder, leader, only surviving member, and narrator of the show), Marcus Paul James has an easy way about him, and an expressive face to match his multi-layered baritone. Jalen Harris has a tenor to melt your heart and pale eyes that look as if they could burn a hole in your soul. Harrell Holmes Jr. (as Melvin Franklin) has a resonant bass that is as much a signature of The Temptations' sound as any lead from David Ruffin (Elijah Ahmed Lewis).
The hits are all here: "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," "My Girl," "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "I Can't Get Next To You," "For Once in My Life," "Get Ready," and a couple of dozen others–all backed by a terrific, tight band. (Whose sound, like that of the singers, is too often lost in the mediocre acoustics of the Golden Gate Theatre.)
Tightly choreographed dance moves are a signature of The Temptations, and the show is blessed to have Sergio Trujillo (who also choreographed Jersey Boys) leading the way. The steps he has created bring to mind the original flavor of the Temps, but with a more modern aesthetic that is both fun to watch and well performed by this cast.
Unfortunately, Morisseau's book is still far too packed with excess baggage that drags what should be an energetic romp through the history of this superstar group. In addition to it being overloaded with too much detail and detours that detract from the main story arc, the story itself is flat. There's nothing really at stake here for the characters. They become famous, some of them drink too much or overindulge in cocaine or philander, and ultimately we don't really care. When I saw the show at Berkeley Rep, I felt it could easily be 30 minutes shorter, and I haven't changed my mind–despite the fact that the book has seen significant changes since that world premiere.
The Temptations are superstars of the highest level, and the performers who play them on stage in this production are superstars in their own way, even if they aren't multi-platinum recording artists. Yet. But their talent is squandered on this overladen origin story of the world's top-selling R&B group of all time.
Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations runs through December 4, 2022, at SHN's Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $56-$256. For tickets and information, call the box office at 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com. For more information on the tour, please visit ainttooproudmusical.com.