*The pre-Broadway run of “Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations” at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles opened Aug 24 with performances through September 30, 2018.
Founded in 1963, The Temptations were one of the premier groups from Motown Records. Following alongside groups like the Supremes, supported by the musical creativity of the Funk Brothers, and masterminded by Berry Gordy himself, the Temptations grew to set the precedence on how Rhythm and Blues groups were perceived and run.
Copied even unto today by groups such as the Whispers, New Edition, Boys to Men and other contemporary groups the dress, style, and dance moves of the Temptation helped create a new trend in music.
All this has coincided into a play that details the life and times of the Temptations from the point of view of the last surviving founding member, singer and songwriter Otis Williams. The play, based on the book ‘The Temptations’ written by Williams, finds Williams struggling to form and keep a group of singers together. Williams exists as the sole member who was able to resist the harmful effects of aging, bad health, alcohol, drugs, and the worst demon, fame.
Starting off with a rousing performance of ‘The Way You Do The Thing You Do.’ Derrick Baskin, the actor who played Williams, quickly got to the history and times of the Temptations with the first in a series of quality monologues that guide the viewer through the story.
With a moving stage and lighting special effects, the play transitioned from scene to scene in a real smooth way. A conveyor belt moved not only people, but props like the bunk beds of the jail that they held Otis Williams in, a full sized Cadillac, and the group’s tour bus. These scenes combined with lighting and sound conveyed the various locations, stages and scened needed to tell the story.
This moving stage consisted of a linear conveyor belt and a rotating centerpiece that was accented by the vertically moving backdrops and the light projection system.
The production was light on particular details, as the actual locations of the various scenes were only hinted at, but seeing them ‘roll’ out from backstage, the audience understood where they were at. The office was Berry Gordy’s office with adjoining recording room used when needed. The streets that Williams recruited the first members, their tour bus and of course the various stages worldwide upon which the Temptations made history.
The narration of Otis Williams towed the play in a linear motion that was accented by the transitions and moving stage. The narration does little to add to the plot as the creators of this play chose to show instead of telling, and those monologues were used more as a recapping and a foreshadowing device.
The Supremes where their only obstacle stumbled upon. Ross, played by Candice Marie Woods, whose performance was dull in retrospect to the expectation of the original. One of the key criticisms of the play is the lack of emphasis on Ross and her Supremes and their domination of the pop scene during their time. Ross had then and still has a dominant stage presence and this was downplayed both by the actress and the script.
Background visuals that consisted of projected imagery that describes the scenes where mear words or actions lacked. Proper set design by Robert Brill, helped push this two-dimensional play, into your imaginations and out the theater altogether. From the streets of Detroit to the pages of the newspapers and even to the funeral of Dr. King, the projection lighting was the unseen star.
As stated before, the Supremes struggled to deliver on Ross’ soft, yet high pitched voice, resulting in a forced imitation of the original. No doubt that the other actors would receive the same in comparison to the real Temptations, however, their performances didn’t seem to lack pizzazz. Maybe the fact that Ross and the Supremes were, in fact, a bigger, more exciting group at the time, and for that fact, the Supremes are forced back to the background and they just don’t fit back there. The other two Supremes stood to the side as mimicking mannequins following everything that Ross’ character did. Only Mary Wilson, played by Taylor Symone Jackson, was able to deliver life through her character via additional interactions later on in the play.
One of the concepts that the Temptations are known for is their choreography. Sergio Trujillo, The Temptations’ choreographer is known for scripting the dance moves of the Donna Summer Musical earlier this year and Guys and Dolls at the Nederlander theater in 2009. The cast of the Temptation looked flawless, in their suits and leather shoes moving together.
As the play moves along and the infidelities and cut-throat actions are displayed, one can’t help but wonder what is going through Otis Williams’ mind when he was first writing this story. What are the truths and which are the exaggerations?
Painting the group in colors that include drug addicts, woman beaters, showboaters and worse, the negative slant of the members coalesced with a scene where the entire group, save Williams, shared a pipe for freebasing crack cocaine. What was true? Was it actually worse and Williams is just painting the memories of his group members in the best light? What was hype for the stage show and what was the reality? What are their spirits saying as the deceased members look back on their story told on stage?
Wilson did not leave himself out. The paint Williams used for himself was the paint of selfishness. Stating in the final act, that he wouldn’t bring back any deceased Temptation, but instead, he would bring back his son who died at 23.
“The only thing you can rewind is a song,” said Williams, quoting the line delivered the last time he and his son spoke before his son’s untimely death. As you look back and remember the scenes, Wilson’s character is stricken with selfish acts disguised as ‘what’s best for the group.’
Although this may seem like a negative aspect of the play, it actually speaks volumes regarding the craftsmanship of author Williams, the playwright Dominique Morisseau, and director Des McAnuff, who combined to deliver an intriguing story that ends with the viewer feeling educated on, but still wanting to learn more about the Temptations.
Brill, the scenic designer, elaborated on McAnuff’s directing, stating, “Des had a strong sense about how the world of this play should move. Both metaphorically and literally, it’s really all about entrances and exits–how the Temptations formed as a group and how they’ve entered and exited from each other lives for over five decades. So, working in tandem with the music, we devised a fluid landscape of moving surfaces–like a kinetic collage–keeping both the characters and all the design elements in motion throughout the evening. While it appears effortless, the machine is like a wonderfully intricate puzzle that’s a true collaboration between the creative team, our expert technical production and our incredible company of actors.”
“The only thing that lives forever is the music.” — Otis Williams
For more about the Temptation’s play or to buy tickets go to the Center Creative Group’s website.