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Posts Tagged ‘dominique morisseau’

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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Sunset Baby
by Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
January 15, 2016

Erin Renee Roberts, Ron Himes Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Erin Renee Roberts, Ron Himes
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

Which comes first, your family or the cause? That dilemma and the consequences of it are a major focus of Dominique Morriseau’s Sunset Baby. It’s a drama of relationships, dreams, and ideals, currently being given a sensitive and well-cast production at the Black Rep.

Kenyatta Shakur (Ron Himes) is the famous leader of a 1980’s black revolutionary movement, who has spent a lot of time in jail as a result of his activism. He has an adult daughter, Nina (Erin Renee Roberts), who didn’t see much of her father when she was growing up, instead being raised by her mother, another famous activist who has recently died after a long battle with drug addiction. When Kenyatta shows up at Nina’s Brooklyn apartment after many years of estrangement, he’s looking for some letters that Nina’s mother had written to him but never mailed. Nina, however, is suspicious of her father’s motives, since various others are also interested in the letters and are willing to spend a great deal of money for them. Forced to drop out of college due to money and having to take care of her mother, she’s now living in a run-down apartment and making a living as a hustler along with her boyfriend, Damon (Lawd Gabe), a drug dealer who also has a child of his own from a previous relationship. Nina, who was named after the famous singer Nina Simone, often spends time listening to Simone’s music and hoping for a future outside of New York, a dream that is fueled by watching travel shows on TV. In the midst of this situation comes her father, who also is shown making a series of videos for Nina. He’s looking to reconnect with his daughter as well as reading the letters, but Nina doesn’t know who to trust. The contrast between Kenyatta and Damon is a major element of the story, as is Kenyatta’s desire to let Nina know how much she and her mother mean to him, as well as the continuing importance of the cause.

This is a small-cast, character-driven play and the actors fit their characters well. Himes projects a combined sense of weariness, regret, concern, and hope as Kenyatta. He doesn’t particularly look like a famous revolutionary, but that’s part of the point, I think. He’s a man and a father who went through some very real struggles for his cause and for the people involved, including his family. That shows in Himes’ performance, and his scenes with Roberts are particularly affecting. Roberts admirably portrays a range of qualities as well, from anger, resentment, and suspicion, to aspiration and hope. Gabe, as Damon, is alternately charming, crafty, and dejected, and he has some strong scenes with both Roberts and Himes. The heart of the drama, though, is the relationship between Kenyatta, Nina, and Nina’s late mother, who never appears except in one projected still image and in a painted silhouette that hangs on Nina’s wall. She’s just as a much a character in the play as the rest. She’s not there, but she’s there, and the production does a good job of creating that sense of familial presence between her and the living, on stage characters of the man she loved and their daughter.

The staging is simple but inventive, with a set by Jim Burkwinkel that consists of two distinct areas–Nina’s apartment and Kenyatta’s room, where he sits to record the videos for his daughter. There’s also excellent use of projections by Mark Wilson. The costumes designed by Daryl Harris are excellent as well, particularly in Nina’s range of distinctive outfits and wigs. There’s good use of lighting as well, designed by Sean Savoie and appropriately setting the mood for the scenes set at various times of day.

Although sometimes I wish there would have been more to this script in terms of background and motivations for the characters (especially Damon, who is the most underwritten), this production is staged well with a strong sense of drama and relationship. It’s an intriguing play that also deals with extremely timely issues of how civil rights activists are treated (and mistreated) by authorities, while more overtly it’s about the father-daughter relationship. It’s a memorable piece of theatre that raises many important questions, and it’s well worth checking out.

Erin Renee Roberts, Lawd Gabe Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Erin Renee Roberts, Lawd Gabe
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

Sunset Baby is being presented by The Black Rep at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until January 31, 2016.

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