Ain’t Too Proud review – a Temptations jukebox musical by numbers

A musical about the Temptations was always going to have a phenomenal songbook. The band became one of the most celebrated Motown acts of the 1960s and 70s and this production is stuffed full of their hits, such as Shout, My Girl and Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone – all of which sound red hot to this day.

The actors sing with vigour and perform the athletic dance moves that made the group so distinctive, with nice period choreography by Sergio Trujillo. But the narrative in Dominique Morisseau’s book, which should bring these men to life, feels so skating, sketchy and divorced from the songbook that the production feels hollowed of an emotional centre. Rarely has a show of its kind felt more like a jukebox musical-by-numbers.

Directed by Des McAnuff, the drama plods through the chronology of the band’s history, from their formation in Detroit to breakthrough and international celebrity. Short scenes are cut through with narration from the band’s founding member, Otis Williams (Sifiso Mazibuko), on whose book, co-authored by Patricia Romanowski, this show is based.

Band members come and go to form its “classic five” lineup including Melvin Franklin (Cameron Bernard Jones), Paul Williams (Kyle Cox), David Ruffin (Tosh Wanogho-Maud) and Eddie Kendricks (Mitchell Zhangazha). There are glimpses into their excesses and romantic lives: we see Otis choose career over family life, how Paul struggles with drink dependency and David with drugs. It is broad-brush but intent on covering all the ground up to their deaths when the men, one by one, glide off stage on a conveyor belt, which seems like a flip manoeuvre out of a quiz show.

Flashes of world events are grafted on. Where race riots in Detroit, Martin Luther King’s assassination and open animosity to Black Americans in the southern states of the 1960s could have been an opportunity to probe how this affects the band, it is glanced at, with a few soundbites, before proceeding to the next song.

Little is expanded upon on the concert-like set on which a Cadillac, a desk or a line of men’s urinals occasionally glide on and off, while the songs themselves are sometimes truncated rather than sung in full. It all feels too safe and more than a little soulless.