Get ready to clap your hands, snap your fingers and sway to the beat of your favorite Motown hits in the jukebox musical Ain’t Too Proud, now playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto.
The show officially opened its pre-Broadway run in the city on Tuesday night to a packed crowd, offering a delightfully high-energy look into the rise and fall of the infamous Motown group, the Temptations. From their humble beginnings on the streets of Detroit to their eventual rise to R&B fame under the guidance of Motown founder Berry Gordy (played by Marqell Edward Clayton), the show takes the audience on a journey through fame, fortune, and the consequences that often follow.
Over 30 musical hits are packed into the two and a half hour show, including such favorites as "Baby Love," "Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone" and of course, the titular single, “Ain’t Too Proud.” Many of the numbers are interrupted by narration or conversations between the cast and then resumed, which, while a unique way of building drama, does admittedly distract a little from the impressive songs that may hit a stronger chord if able to continue without interruption. That being said, there are still plenty of electrifying chart-toppers to satisfy your Motown bug.
The story follows Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin) who, after being sent to a juvenile detention center at age 16, emerged a changed man with a desire to join the growing world of Motown singers. He forms a musical group, then alters that group a little, and then a little more before we get the “Classic Five” Temptations: Otis, Melvin Franklin (Jawan M. Jackson), Paul Williams (James Harkness), Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope) and David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes). Together these boys climbed the charts and, after 24 singles, finally earned their first number one.
Of course, fame and fortune often comes at a price. The strains of their success show on each individual member, with David’s drug problems, Otis’ marital woes and Paul’s alcoholism, just to name a few. Witness the story of an inwardly crumbling group, set against the soundtrack of Motown’s top hits, with expertly choreographed dance moves and a powerful narration, provided by Otis, that will grab at your heart and command your full attention.
Based on the book The Temptations by the group's sole surviving original member, Otis Williams, award-winning playwright Dominique Morisseau took his story and expertly adapted it for the stage. Under the direction of the Tony award-winning Des McAnuff (“The Jersey Boys”, “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical”), Ain’t Too Proud delivers non-stop entertainment and musical numbers, interspersed with the challenges of achieving fame and then maintaining it. The show also follows the group through some of the most monumental decades in American history, including such events as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the onset of the Vietnam War, and also provides insight into how the members coped while trying to make it big in a racially charged society.
The stage is made up of a horizontal moving treadmill, which later acts as a sort of conveyor belt to discard old Temptation members and introduce new ones, as well as a large rotating disc, both of which are utilized for changing scenes and providing a stage-upon-a-stage for the stars to perform on top of. There are also high-power projectors which display various newspaper headlines, location titles and black and white photos, but sometimes the projections are more distracting than they are helpful. The actual sets and props are limited but also largely unnecessary. The sheer star power of the performers takes up enough of the stage already.
Derrick Baskin shines unbelievably bright as the show’s anchor, Otis Williams, and acts as our candid guide through the life and times of the Temptations. He delivers beautiful, and also sometimes devastating, emotional depth to the show and allows us to witness the anguish Otis felt over the increasingly constant rotation in members of his dear Temptations.
The other members of the group each provide their own unique style and sound to the show. Ephraim Sykes, who plays the charismatic and high-energy performer David Ruffin, seems almost weightless as he effortlessly throws his body around the stage, dropping into impressive splits and bending his limbs as he seductively croons the audience. Jawan M. Jackson as Melvin Franklin brings an impressive bass to each song that will resonate deep inside your chest. Paul Williams’ actor, James Harkness, glides around the stage and belts his notes to the rafters, and Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendricks provides a knock-out falsetto that will leave you breathless.
The production also features several tremendous musical numbers from the Supremes who nearly steal the show with their elegance and spectacular Motown ballads. Candice Marie Woods in particular is a definite standout, offering us a commanding performance as the legendary Diana Ross.
Ain’t Too Proud is one show you definitely won’t want to miss. Even if you're like me and you didn’t grow up during Motown’s peak era, you will still appreciate the pageantry, the expert choreography, and the power of collective voices coming together to create sweet harmonies that will have you up out of your seat dancing along with the cast.
Ain't Too Proud runs at the Princess of Wales Theatre until November 17, 2018. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets. The show is set to make its Broadway debut next spring.~Caitlyn Clancey