Review by Daz Gale
Get ready because a major new jukebox musical based on the songbooks of a legendary group has opened in the West End following a run on Broadway. This is a group I was raised on so I was particularly excited for this one. I guess you say what can make me feel this way? It can only be Ain't too proud – The Life And Times Of The Temptations. But the questions are could it live up to the legendary status of the group? And would I fill this review with terrible puns based on their most iconic songs or be able to resist The Temptation? Well... that's already answered that one.
If you are in a ball of confusion about who The Temptations are, they are the American group who became synonymous with the Motown sound, dominating the charts in the 1960s and 1970s. Ain’t Too Proud charts their origins, highs and lows as they achieve success and the revolving door of band members that made them the Sugababes of their day. With founding member and the only surviving original Temptation Otis WIlliams on board as executive producer, hopes are high this musical would be another hit to add to their repertoire.
Based on Otis Williams book on the group, Dominique Morisseau pulls the decades worth of story to make a cohesive narrative that wastes no time in set up, plunging the audience headfirst in before the character of Otis takes us back to the start with fourth wall breaking narration. Jukebox musicals where only one of the original members are involved run the risk of seeming biased or portraying that member on stage as a flawless saviour (I’m reminded of one show like that which shall remain nameless). Refreshingly, Otis is seen here for his mistakes in a story full of heart, vulnerability and a lot of love.
Sifiso Mazibuko steps into the shoes of Otis Williams and does a fantastic job guiding us through the turbulent times. While he is the one steering the ship and moving the story forward he is happy to take a back seat and let his fellow Temptations lead the way when need be. However, the character remains the one constant in the changing line-up and with Sifiso, it feels very much in a safe pair of hands in a performance that comforts and reassures whenever he is on stage.
While there have been 27 Temptations over the years, the bulk of the story is centred around the most iconic lineup. Each of these five moments get their own time to shine while coming together harmoniously. Kyle Cox impresses with his moves as Paul Williams and Cameron Bernard-Jones is brilliantly cool replicating Melvin Franklin’s instantly recognisable bass tone perfectly.Mitchell Zhangazha displays the voice of an angel with a heavenly performance as Eddie Kendricks. The contrast between Mitchell and Camerons voices in particular creates a truly varied yet spectacular sound in keeping with The Temptations oeiginal style.
The last of the five Temptations is David Ruffin, played here by Tosh Wanogho-Maud. No stranger to playing members of iconic groups, having recently finished a run in The Drifters Girl, Tosh has proved time and time again what a formidable performer he is. In Ain’t Too Proud, he has not only struck gold with his performance once more but has reached a new peak of brilliance. His characterisation and the way he truly embodies the person he is portraying is second to none and his vocals truly are out of this world, especially when tackling a song as timeless as ‘My Girl’. He has a bit more to do with his part than his previous show which gives Tosh the opportunity to play to all his strengths. While his stage time in the second act is far more limited in comparison due to the accuracies in the story, he is never out of mind and is always guaranteed to bring the house down whenever he sets foot on stage.
Ain’t Too Proud is a show that boasts a truly phenomenal ensemble with characters doubling up as various replacement members of The Temptations. The way so many of them get a turn in the spotlight is admirable in a stage bursting with talents. Highlights among the consistently brilliant cast are Ryan Carter as Smokey Robinson, Michael James Stewart who dominates the early sequences in the show as Al Bryant and Posi Morakinyo who is perfectly scene-stealing as Dennis Edwards. It’s not just the men that get their time to shine with Holly Liburd as Diana Ross and Evonnee Bentley-Holder as Tammi Terrell both outstanding in their roles. A true highlight of the night belongs to Naomi Katiyo as she puts a new spin on the classic ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’.
That brings us on nicely to the music – and what s songbook The Temptations have. Whether you grew up with their music, discovered them through your parents or grandparents or don’t know the first thing about them, I can all but guarantee you will know more songs in Ain’t Too Proud than you might expect. Feelgood anthems such as ‘Get Ready’ join the politically charged ‘Ball Of Confusion’ and a standout moment in ‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone’. It’s not just Temptations songs present here with songs made most famous by The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and Edwin Starr all present. Perhaps the standout moment of the night belonged to a number I wasn’t familiar with before seeing the show – ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ performed outstandingly by Tosh in a truly stunning sequence. Packed full of instantly recognisable songs, Ain’t Too Proud does a great job of using them in sense of the story, more seamlessly than Motown The Musical managed. Fantastically recreated by Musical Director Matt Smith and a truly impressive band, they deliver an always amazing sound.
Equally impressive in Ain’t Too Proud are the production elements.featuring an impressive set design by Robert Brill. Glitzy and designed to resemble the venues the band played throughout their career, it is brilliantly effective and elevated further thanks to some gorgeous projection design from Peter Nigrini. Paul Tazewells costume design completed the aesthetic to ensure a show that always looks as beautiful as it sounds. A key production element is the lighting, exquisitely designed by Howell Binkley. From resembling concerts to dimly lit in quieter moments, it is at its best with its use of spotlights on characters signifying their beginnings and endings.
The Temptations were known for their slick dance moves and these are recreated with Sergio Trujillo’s perfect choreography. The attention to detail including the moments characters have to snap in to very different movement suddenly shows a real intricacy and one that is a joy to behold. All these elements are tied together thanks to Des McAnuff’s exquisite direction which tells the story with meticulous care.
As the story charts the life and times of The Temptations, they are not without their darker moments. There are moments of abuse, racism and tragic premature deaths among there, but ultimately this is a story of legacy. As Otis recounts each of his now departed band mates and the joy that the music lives forever, there is a sense of poignancy as we feel for these now passed characters we have come to know and love over the past couple of hours. That in itself is a testament to the writing. However, this is show with more joy than sorrow – whether it be a witty one-liner or the excitement of the band singing their latest hit, Ain’t Too Proud is a show where you are never more than a moment away from your next big smile.
Jukebox musicals are a great way to introduce the next generation to a catalogue of songs they may not have previously known. I myself have discovered artists from previous generations I now adore myself from a jukebox musical. The Temptations were always played in my house growing up and the love of this songbook was passed down from my mother to me in a great example of how music can transcend generations. While some might sniff at jukebox musicals being a dumb form of theatre, I firmly believe this couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only do they make theatre more accessible for people who might not necessarily go otherwise, they can be among the most riveting and often intelligent shows.
Ain’t Too Proud is the perfect example of this. Taking one of the most iconic songbooks in history and bringing it to life for people from all walks of life to experience is part of what makes theatre so beautiful. This show in particular manages to be life-affirming with its story, bringing a sense of nostalgia and poignancy which gave a much needed bit of sunshine on a cloudy day.
Flawless production value and a great story are all part of what makes this special but let’s be special – there is one reason to see this show in particular and that is the truly exceptional cast. The best vocals you may ever hear on a West End stage, the talent that has been gathered to sing these legendary songs is astonishing and will leave you gasping for breath wondering how a group of people could be THAT talented. One thing is for sure, Ain’t Too Proud is a fitting addition to The Temptations’ legacy and everyone involved with this masterpiece really should be proud.
Ain’t Too Proud plays at the Prince Edward Theatre. Tickets from https://www.princeedwardtheatre.co.uk/whats-on/aint-too-proud
Photos by Johan Persson