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Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations
Book by Dominique Morisseau
Music and Lyrics from The Legendary Motown Catalogue
Based on the Book The Temptations by Otis Williams with Patricia Romanowski
Directed by Des McAnuff
Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
The Fox Theatre
September 20, 2022

Marcus Paul James, Jalen Harris, Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Harrell Holmes Jr., James T. Lane
Photo by Emilio Madrid
Ain’t Too Proud North American Tour

The touring production of Ain’t Too Proud, the hit Broadway musical about the legendary R&B group The Temptations, is currently onstage at the Fox Theatre. This is one of those shows that draws a big crowd simply on the subject’s reputation, with a broad catalogue of hit songs from the group and other classic Motown artists. With an excellent cast and a fast-moving, stylish technical production, it’s an engaging, energetic crowd-pleaser. 

The “jukebox bio-musical” has been a popular genre in recent years, with a host of  shows featuring the stories and songs of legendary musical artists and groups making the rounds on Broadway and on tour. With Ain’t Too Proud, the focus mostly on the “classic” version of The Temptations as they rose to fame at Motown Records in the 1960s–Otis Williams (Marcus Paul James), Paul Williams (James T. Lane), Melvin Franklin (Harrell Holmes Jr.), Eddie Kendricks (Jalen Harris), and David Ruffin (Elijah Ahmad Lewis). The story, narrated by Otis Williams, focuses on how the group started, following as they achieved the height of their popularity, endured personal tensions and other issues, and eventually lost and gained members as the group–and the world–moved into the 1970s, 80s, and beyond, dealing with issues of changing musical styles as well as more weightier issues like dealing with racism in the industry and in the rest of the country, as well as war and violence in the world. The show also features other popular Motown artists–most prominently The Supremes (Amber Mariah Talley as Diana Ross, Shayla Brielle G. as Florence Ballard, and Traci Elaine Lee as Mary Wilson), portrayed as the Temptations’ main rivals for chart supremacy in the 1960s. Personal struggles, including the group members’ romantic relationships and family issues, are dealt with to a degree–especially for Otis Williams, whose first wife, Josephine (Najah Hetsberger), and son Lamont (Gregory C. Banks Jr.) are featured, highlighting the ongoing struggle to balance family and career ambitions. Other group members deal with the various temptations (pun noted) of fame, including drug and alcohol addiction, as the years go by and the group changes in various ways, with newer members Dennis Edwards (Dwayne P. Mitchell), Richard Street (Devin Holloway), and Damon Harris (Lawrence Dandrige) all getting notable stage time. 

The setup has some similarities to Jersey Boys (about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons), in that it focuses on a prominent music group of men and their personal and musical struggles over the years, but the story is framed more from the point of view of one member of the group, since the show is based on Otis Williams’s memoir. So, everything is essentially from Otis’s perspective, and the music takes precedence over the personal drama most of the time. The book, by playwright Dominique Morisseau, is well-structured, managing to involve all the main players in prominent ways, for the most part, although as time goes by and the personnel of the group changes, it does seem to gloss over some detail sometimes, although the major focus is, as always, on the music, keeping the audience’s attention and enthusiasm throughout. In fact, there are a few well-timed moments in which the performers encourage the audience to sing and clap along, which works well in showcasing the classic Motown music and the overall tone of the show as a celebration of the Temptations’ legacy. The staging is smooth and energetic, with a great ensemble, vibrant choreography by Serigio Trujillo, and a dynamic set by Robert Brill that emphasizes movement and the swift passage of time, augmented by the excellent projection design by Peter Nigrini. There’s also dazzling lighting by Howell Binkley, along with stylish, marvelously detailed costumes by Paul Tazewell that reflect the changing eras especially well. 

As for the cast, it’s stellar, with the main five Temptations all giving strong, well-sung performances, with James as Otis Williams serving as an ideal narrator, and Lewis showing off excellent stage presence and some particularly impressive dance moves as David Ruffin. Lane also has some especially poignant moments as Paul Williams, and Harris as Eddie Kendricks and Holmes as Melvin Franklin also give winning, memorable performances. There are also strong turns from Mitchell as Ruffin’s replacement in the group, Dennis Edwards, Hetsberger as Josephine, and Reed Campbell as the group’s agent Shelly Berger. Everyone, from featured players to ensemble, is full of presence, energy, and excellent vocal ability, showcasing the story and especially the catalogue of classic hit songs with vibrancy and style. 

Overall, Ain’t Too Proud is an entertaining tribute to a legendary musical group, as well as Motown music in general. If you love this music, you are likely to love this show. With a terrific cast, impressive production values, and of course that legendary music, this is sure to entertain, and have you humming the tunes on the way home. 

Cast of Ain’t Too Proud
Photo by Emilio Madrid
Ain’t Too Proud North American Tour

The North American Tour of Ain’t Too Proud is playing at the Fox Theatre until October 2, 2022

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The Who’s Tommy
Music and Lyrics by Pete Townshend, Book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff
Additional Music and Lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith Moon
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
October 11, 2019

Cast of The Who’s Tommy
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

For its latest production, Stray Dog Theatre is bringing back a show they first staged 8 years ago. Although I didn’t see that production, I’ve heard some glowing comments about it, so I’m not entirely surprised they would want to produce it again. Now, the company has restaged The Who’s Tommy with a new look and concept, and an excellent cast, particularly in terms of the three performers playing the title role at different ages.

Legendary British rock group The Who first produced their rock opera Tommy as a concept album in 1969. It has since been adapted into a trippy movie directed by Ken Russell in 1975, and later into a Tony-winning Broadway musical. Each version has been altered in various ways from the original album, and I hadn’t seen the stage show before this latest production from SDT, although I had seen the film roughly 30 years ago. What I remember most is the iconic rock score, featuring hits like “Pinball Wizard”, and much of that score is featured here. The story focuses on the life of Tommy Walker (played from young adulthood by Kevin Corpuz), who is born in England in the early years of World War II and suffers a traumatic incident involving his parents (Kelly Howe, Phil Leveling) and his mother’s lover (Jordan Wolk) when he is four years old (played by Alora Marguerite Walsby). As a result, Tommy loses the ability to see, speak, and hear, and grows up experiencing the world using his other senses and emotions. He’s further abused and bullied by other relatives, including his creepy, alcoholic Uncle Ernie (Cory Frank) and his opportunistic Cousin Kevin (Tristan Davis), and taken by his parents to various doctors and others offering “cures” for Tommy (played at age 10 by Leo Taghert). Eventually, Tommy is introduced to pinball by his cousin, and he displays a surprising and remarkable talent for the game, causing a sensation and attracting fans and followers. He then becomes something of a cult figure for a lot of his fans, and he has to figure out what to do about that and come to terms with his own past, present, and future.

The entire technical side of this production is stunning, especially in the visuals. This production is given a unique design that gives it more of a futuristic look rather than the 1940s–1960s time frame would suggest. This look goes especially well with the rock music score and overall mysterious tone of the piece. There’s a fluorescent neon look to Eileen Engel’s costumes that gives them a striking appearance and works well with Josh Smith’s concert-stage like multilevel set, Justin Been’s dazzling kaleidoscopic projections, and Tyler Duenow’s dynamic lighting. The driving score is played with style by the excellent band led by music director Jennifer Buchheit, with particular kudos going to guitar players Adam Rugo and John J. Reitano, who give the music much of its power. The only occasional drawback to the sheer volume of everything is that sometimes the words to the songs can be lost under the music, especially in the ensemble numbers, and with a show like this that is mostly sung-through with very little spoken dialogue, it’s especially essential to be able to hear the lyrics.

The casting is especially strong here, led by the three performers who play Tommy as he grows up. Corpuz, as the adult Tommy and “guiding voice” for his younger versions, gives a commanding performance, with strong stage presence and a powerful voice that fits the score well. The younger Tommys are just as good, too, from Walsby’s mostly silent performance and very credible reactions to Taghert’s journey as the youthful Tommy goes through a series of traumatic encounters and finally finds his talent. All three of these actors are the heart of this show, and much of the dramatic weight rests on them. There are also strong showings from Howe and Leveling as Tommy’s parents, Frank as the smarmy Uncle Ernie, Davis in a particularly well-sung turn as Cousin Kevin, Engel as a determined young fan of Tommy’s named Sally Simpson, and Jeffrey M. Wright in several roles. The ensemble is also strong all around, vocally and in demonstrating Mike Hodges’ energetic choreography.

The Who’s Tommy has something of a rock concert feel to it, as is fitting with the show’s origins. Still, there is a compelling story here, told by a bold, bright, futuristic-looking production led by a particularly strong trio of title performers. It’s another memorable musical from Stray Dog Theatre.

Cast of The Who’s Tommy
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Who’s Tommy at Tower Grove Abbey until October 26, 2019

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