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Ain’t Too Proud, the biographical jukebox musical about The Temptations that’s currently on tour, shares much in common with the legendary vocal group at the core of its story. It is all but engineered to be a popular hit, stuffed with the Motown classics that are still a staple of wedding reception playlists and appealing to the nostalgia of the many generations who grew up hearing The Temptations on the radio. The production also hews closely to the formula of the popular jukebox musical Jersey Boys, which likewise was originally directed by Des McAnuff.
The musical, however, also shares the unfortunate fact that a slick, appealing presentation masks some hidden troubles. In the case of The Temptations, that came in the form of its members constantly beset by the slings and arrows of fame and fortune; in the case of Ain’t Too Proud, it meant opening on Broadway only months before COVID-19 shut the production down, the pandemic subsequently delaying its national tour, and a cast outbreak causing a two-week delay in its current Kennedy Center run. Still, The Temptations have endured for more than 60 years (the group is still a touring act today), and Ain’t Too Proud has enough going right for it to suggest it, too, might earn enduring popularity.
On paper, a Motown jukebox brought to life by stunningly talented voices seems like a sure crowd pleaser, but adapting the story of The Temptations certainly isn’t easy. The group racked up a string of no. 1 hits very early on that are still in heavy rotation today, which means the musical can’t exactly hinge on a big finale in which the band finally finds stardom. Also complicated to capture in a play is that the group has seen a revolving door of “Temps”—totaling 26 different members over the years, including a fair turnover in the early decades that Ain’t Too Proud focuses on.
The production handles all these challenges deftly, with a large ensemble that allows for the talented cast to remain onstage and highlight their truly impressive pipes even when their Temptations character only appears in the first and last ten minutes of the show. A deceptively simple set, designed by Robert Brill, hides countless sliding walls and props ushered in on fast conveyor belts, which allows the musical to flit through dozens of scenes spanning decades of story without ever missing a beat. McAnuff keeps the show racing from hit to hit such that the two and a half hour run time flies by.
With the musical astonishingly jam-packed with 31 Motown tracks, the plot understandably takes a backseat, framed by founder Otis Williams (Marcus Paul James) narrating the drama of members coming and going while the group cranks out hit after hit. To its credit, the production doesn’t shy away from the messy lives behind the buttery smooth music, cataloguing the affairs, personal tragedies, and megalomania that constantly threaten to tear the band apart. Despite the long list of characters, we spend enough time to care for and empathize with all of them, cheering their successes and lamenting their failures. Each emotional beat is deftly handled, save for one faltering father/son moment that echoes a little too much like a melodramatic cliche.
While the plot is engaging and the characters are charming, ultimately, it’s the music that is the star of Ain’t Too Proud. The show-stopping vocal talent and lively choreography that brings the music to life is what will continue bringing audiences to come and clap along to the beat.
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, directed by Des McAnuff, with book by Dominique Morisseau and music/lyrics from The Legendary Motown Catalog, runs to Jan. 16 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW. kennedy-center.org. $45–$185.