Ain’t Too Proud | Live Show Review
Thursday, July 6, 2023
A show that seemed strangely pro forma on Broadway, where it was at least excitingly performed, seems to have been depleted of resources here
What a difference 15 years can make. It was in February 2008 that the Prince Edward Theatre hosted the UK premiere of Jersey Boys, the Broadway smash (since-transferred several times over in London) that tethered the back catalogue of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to an exceedingly smart book by Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman.
The musical’s dancing is smooth and sleek, if somewhat mechanised as well
That show’s original London berth is now hosting another Broadway-to-London transplant, and from the same director and choreographer – Des McAnuff and Sergio Trujillo – who served up Jersey Boys in style. But despite nabbing a 2019 Tony for Trujillo’s dance steps, Ain’t Too Proud is in truth none too interesting. Sure, the music pulses with vigour: how could an entertainment drawing upon the capacious Motown archives do anything but, as Motown: The Musical has already proven?
However, a show that seemed strangely pro forma on Broadway, where it was at least excitingly performed, seems to have been depleted of resources here. I don’t know if the London cast is being stretched beyond its capabilities or whether the industry itself is suffering jukebox musical fatigue, but the production feels under-energised and will depend on the seemingly insatiable appetite for such entertainments to sustain a run. (‘For Once in My Life’, made famous by Stevie Wonder, is especially croaky here, and the thrilling falsettos often demanded by this music sound out of reach for several in the cast.)
Ryan Carter, Tosh Wanogho-Maud, Cameron Bernard Jones, Sifiso Mazibuko, Mitchell Zhangazha, Kyle Cox (photo: Johan Persson)
Part of the problem may be the narrative obstructions posed by the group’s very history, which is one of rancour and illness and death set against the backdrop of burgeoning fame as a global brand. ‘The music is colour blind,’ a manager tells The Temptations early on; ‘But the world isn’t’ comes the reply – notwithstanding a crossover appeal that led to their status as the number one group in the history of R&B. That such a perch has come at a price is confirmed by the report that there have been 27 Temptations between 1963 and today; Otis Williams, now 81, being the last remaining original member. It falls to a hard-working Sifiso Mazibuko, the show’s Otis, to chronicle the group’s rise from difficult times back in Detroit – ‘You either sang or joined the gang’ – to success with ‘My Girl’, which topped the charts in 1965.
The song also brought to the fore David Ruffin, The Temptations’ frontman, and Tosh Wanogho-Maud, late of The Drifters Girl, carries the show – until Ruffin’s death (in 1991, age 50) requires the musical to continue without him: his absence is felt. Women, incidentally, are inevitably marginalised, though The Supremes pop up briefly as a glamorous reminder of the competition out there at the time.
The show’s source is Williams’s own memoir, co-authored with Patricia Rowmanowski and here adapted for the stage by Dominique Morisseau, a Tony nominee last year for her play Skeleton Crew. That her book for Ain’t Too Proud was itself nominated three years earlier speaks to an annual paucity of available candidates in that category. Surely the men’s individual response to the fissures roiling America during the racial reckoning, and more, of the 1960s deserves rather better than ‘Outside the world was exploding and so were we’, and it’s left to Peter Nigrini’s projections to proffer a visual reminder of that tumultuous time.
The dancing is smooth and sleek, as expected, if somewhat mechanised as well, and the same can be said of Ain’t Too Proud as a whole. Jersey Boys felt as singular as the signature handshake the show describes; this latest, by comparison, feels assembled by committee – a ChatGPT musical that, let’s hope, won’t be a vision of more of the same to come.
The Motown Catalogue music, lyrics
Dominique Morisseau book
Prince Edward Theatre, London 31 March 2023 – ongoing
Reviewed on 19 April 2023
Cast Kyle Cox, Sifiso Mazibuko, Tosh Wanogho-Maud, Mitchell Zhangazha, Cameron Bernard Jones, Ryan Carter, Evonnee Bentley-Holder et al
Direction Des McAnuff
Musical direction Matt Smith
Choreography Sergio Trujillo
Set Robert Brill
Lighting Howell Binkley
Sound Steve Canyon Kennedy
Costumes Paul Tazewell