SALT LAKE CITY — Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations has dropped into the Eccles, and it has a lotta groove. The touring production of the 2018 musical arrives in Salt Lake with the same director and choreographer that made it an 11-time Tony nominated success, and it features excellent production values and performances.
The jukebox musical is based on group leader Otis Williams’s book The Temptations, and Williams himself serves as executive producer. It is unlike any jukebox musical I have seen in many regards: it is packed with storyline, contains many songs that did not belong to the group, and is anything but a feel-good story.
But first, let’s talk about its shining qualities. Ain’t Too Proud covers the life and times of the group which was responsible for ’60s and ’70s hits, like “My Girl,” “Get Ready,” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Although glorious music and dancing is at the show’s center, particular attention is paid to the group’s interpersonal conflict, personal tragedies, and how the group addressed charged racial and political times.
Direction by Des McAnuff was out of sight and worked hand-in-hand with Sergio Trujillo’s Tony-winning choreography. The movement, blocking, and choreography were outstanding. I sat stunned at the recreation of a scene in NBC Studios as TV cameras wheeled around the group in beautiful synchronicity and the singers gazed from one shifted focus rhythmically.
The cast was headed by a magnificent Michael Andreas as Otis Williams. Unlike a lot of jukebox musicals, the lead had a lot of heavy acting to do, and Andreas was a great spine for the show. His sing-songy delivery of lines was fit for a showman, and I appreciated how thoroughly he considered the cadence of each line.
Although Williams was the heart and soul of the group, the biggest vocal pyrotechnics were provided by other cast members, in particular a series of man-divas who eventually got kicked out when fame went to their head. In fact, the show featured so many group members that almost every man in the cast was a Temptation at one point or another.
Ain’t Too Proud integrated music into scenes much better than other jukebox musicals I have seen. One of the show’s unique features about was just how much history it covered, which was a curse and a blessing. On one hand, the book by Dominique Morisseau explored interesting facts, like Smokey Robinson’s creative control of the group. On the other, there were so many members and storylines that scenes often felt like loosely connected bullet points without emotional validation. The choice to include so many songs from other groups likely compounded this brevity.
Scenic design by Robert Brill kept an inner city Detroit vibe throughout the night, with gray industrial textures mixed with marquees used for set dressing in almost every scene. The giant Motown “M” logo backing the studio office was cool and powerful. And the impressive hands-free scene change system had chairs and desks flying onstage on their own power. Also noteworthy was the set’s heavy use of projection (so popular these days) was by Peter Nigrini.
The professional cast, many of whom had Broadway backgrounds, was killer. My seat was literally rocking from how hard audience members in my row were enjoying the music. Elijah Ahmad Lewis’s vocal performance (as prima donna group member David Ruffin) threatened to steal the show. And no wonder, because he was the understudy for the role in the original Broadway production. Jalen Harris as Eddie Kenricks seemed to lack some strength in his upper register in “Get Ready,” but he made up for it with a late solo in “Just My Imagination,” which may have earned the loudest applause of the night.
Another musical element that was lacking was the actresses playing the Supremes, who sang multiple songs. The air seemed to deflate when they performed. The performers seemed undermiked and, unfortunately, lacked the stage presence of their male counterparts. Although the real Diana Ross truly did have a light voice, Amber Mariah Talley could have sold it more.
If Ain’t Too Proud were a movie, it would be rated R for strong language, two scenes of drug use (including cocaine and bongs), domestic abuse, and plenty of fighting. The serious content may surprise some audiences accustomed to generic jukebox musicals. To get a vibe of the show, just look at the name: “Ain’t Too Proud” is not just shorthand for a famous song. It is an indication of the checkered history of the group and how the show’s creators feel about the history of an iconic musical group and its times.
It is a treat to see a show in Salt Lake City packed with so many pros at the top of their game. Ain’t Too Proud won’t please those expecting a generically happy musical revue, but it has merit and style to spare. Ain’t Too Proud is a top-notch show with a whole lot of soul.