After watching the show and reading the credits, there’s no denying that Ain’t too proud is just Boys jersey with significantly better songs but a little less plot. Yet only a cynic of the darkest degree would say “Boys jersey but better” doesn’t sound like a good night at the theatre. Director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo pull most of the tricks and familiar directing bits from their previous superhit, but the songs they get as a framework here are undeniably better on every level than the relative highs and lows of the Four Seasons songbook.
The book, by playwright Dominique Morriseau, paints the story as a showbiz tragi-comedy centering on lone survivor Otis Williams (Marcus Paul James), who looks back on his more than half a century of music with the band that he founded, the legendary Motown Temptations. Unlike Jersey Boys, which focused on the heart of the Four Seasons, the focus here is on how the music has changed and the world around them has changed, while Otis has remained the only constant. Along the way, he struck up friendships and rivalries with Motown mastermind Berry Gordy (Michael Andreaus) and bumped into Temptations-turned-solo artists David Ruffin (Elijah Ahmad Lewis) Eddie Kendricks (Jalen Harris).
The basic original temptations are all fantastic. Marcus Paul James’ Otis may be the founder, but he was never the star of The Temptations, and as such James doesn’t get a big vocal solo until the end. Despite this, her ongoing storytelling and status as Everyman provide a basis for the show’s perspective that the perspective-changing sister shows. Boys jersey never acquires, while justifying the idea that Time as a group and a concept was greater than the mere sum of its original parts. Elijah Ahmad Lewis shines in the showier role of David Ruffin, the showboating frontman whose personal life and drug addiction interfere with group cohesion. Lewis sings and dances like an absolute master of his craft, giving the character’s darkest moments unexpected weight; you really feel like you’re seeing a glimpse behind the neatly curated media image. Harrell Holmes Jr.’s Melvin Franklin, the band’s superbass, often plays the gentle giant role, but Holmes’ deep bass lends weight to Melvin’s progressive illness and decline in old age.
The supporting cast is solid, especially Michael Andreaus as Berry Gordy. Gordy isn’t a singing role for the most part, but he serves as a dramatic foil to the Temptations as a whole. The Motown boss was a demanding leader, but his dominance and masterful ear pushed the band to evolve and excel. Also worth paying attention to is Lawrence Dandridge, whose cameo as Smokey Robinson nearly stopped the show when he spoke in a deadly caricature of Robinson’s high, airy voice.
By the end of the show, most of the male ensembles have played old Temptations or replacement Temptations…then comes the finale, in which the entire cast appears in matching costumes like a giant ensemble of super-Temptations. The curtain opens, revealing the orchestra playing and dancing (including some apparent extras holding instruments they clearly do not play and appear in the orchestration at all). Yes, it’s the same ending as Boys jersey, but the party vibe is so palpable and the music so good that complaining seems to miss the point. The sense of community nurtured by the Temptations over the past sixty years, between band members and audiences, turns the whole of Benedum into a party center.
A side note in leaving: one of my favorite things about Pittsburgh’s theater culture is that there’s a certain small demographic (mostly older, surprisingly) that has taken up cosplay or “bounding” (dressing in style but not explicitly AS characters) when they go to the theater for a big musical. We had Pink Ladies at Grease, a few Julia Roberts at Pretty Woman, and two men in full Gouster-era post-zoot suits at Ain’t Too Proud. I smiled and complimented, they nodded; this kind of playful audience engagement is the surest sign to me that post-lockdown, the Pittsburgh theater scene is alive and well again.