🎭 The Power of the Group | “Ain’t Too Proud” @ Ahmanson

Ain't Too Proud (Ahmanson)With the passing of Labor Day, we’re out of the summer show season and into the fall theatre season. This brings the season openers for many companies, including the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The Ahmanson’s first show is an odd beast: it was essentially a replacement for Crazy for You, announced for February 2018 but later postponed. This meant that it was an addition to the previous season as well as being (due to timing) the first show in the 2018-2019 season. This made me glad I hadn’t gotten tickets to Crazy for You, because we ended up subscribing. This also meant that there was essentially double the audience fighting for seats, so that when we changed our seats due to our vacation, we ended up in the far back row (row Z; our subscription is Row S).

This is also a biographic jukebox musical, along the lines of Jersey Boys. However, the songs generally don’t serve to tell the story, but to tell the time — presented chronologically where they are in the storyline, as opposed to being used to provide the story line.

Lastly, this is also a pre-Broadway musical. It has been announced for the Imperial Theatre, although the cast or opening date is still pending. The Los Angeles production is the 3rd developmental production; there is still one to go in Toronto.

Hence, when looking at this musical, we’re not just judging it as a replacement show for a revision of an (essentially) George Gershwin jukebox (for that, really, is what Crazy for You is). It is a new musical, and it needs to meet the standards of Broadway.

Does this production, which features a book by Dominique Morisseau (FB), based on the book The Temptations by Otis Williams (FB) with Patricia Romanowski, music and lyrics from “The Legendary Motown Catalog”, and direction by Des McAnuff, meet those standards? No. In many ways, it reminds me of Baby, It’s You that we saw at the Pasadena Playhouse many many years ago … and which went to Broadway and quickly disappeared. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed, but in its present form, it will have problems. Luckily, these problems are primarily book-based (a major problems for shows). The Motown music catalog is always a delight, although with the recent Motown and shows like Dreamgirls, it may be a well that has been drawn from too frequently.

As just noted, the story is based on the book written by the one constant member of the Temptations, Otis Williams. As such, it does tend to present his view of the story; given the various infighting over the years, one would expect some differing views might have emerged — but they are never presented. Reading through the Wikipedia history, the version on stage seems to capture the highlights, although it glosses over many of the numerous changes and problems over the years.  All for entertainment sake, I guess. In terms of all the personnel changes and the fighting over the group’s name, it reminds me of all the changes in groups like The Kingston Trio or the Limeliters over the years. I guess folk and R&B are connected. In terms of how accurate the music was, I must confess to not having even a shallow Temptations catalog — out of the 45,000+ songs on my iPod, only 5 are from the Temptations — and 3 of those are from the Motown musical.

The main book problem with the show is that it is very narrative driven. The scenes in the show often don’t tell the story — they are performances. What tells the story is the narrator. That’s wrong for a musical. In a musical, either the scenes or (ideally) the music should tell the story. That it doesn’t here is a problem that book writers need to address before this arrives on the Great White Way.

But that’s structural, and structure is often different than entertainment. This show is entertaining, no question. The music is a collection of Motown hits — and not just from the Temptations, but from other Motown groups such as the Supremes. There is the remarkable dance and choreography of the Temptations, recreated by the choreographer Sergio Trujillo.  There is the remarkable on-stage but hidden band  under the direction of Kenny Seymour. When they rock out at the end of the show, you are just blown away. As a concert and dance performance with a Cliff Notes story, this is just great.

The performances — especially the singing and dancing performances — are exceptional. The main problem is that with so many changes in the composition of The Temptations, many of the later members become indistinguishable, especially if you are seated at a distance. This is complicated by the reuse of the ensemble in multiple roles — making it difficult to tell who is who.

Luckily, that’s less of an issue for the top tier — the main Temptations: Derrick Baskin (FB) [Otis Williams], James Harkness (★FB, FB) [Paul Williams]; Jawan M. Jackson (★FBFB) [Melvin Franklin]; Jeremy Pope (★FB, FB) [Eddie Kendricks]; and Ephraim Sykes (★FB, FB) [David Ruffin]. They are unmistakable, especially Jackson’s deep voice.

A few others have primary named roles and a few background unnamed ensemble tracks: Saint Aubyn (FB) [Dennis Edwards, Fight Captain, Ensemble]Shawn Bowers (FB[Lamont, Asst. Dance Captain, Ensemble]; E. Clayton Cornelious (★FB) [Richard Street, Ensemble]; Jahi Kearse (FB[Barry Gordy, Ensemble]; Joshua Morgan (★FBFB[Shelly Berger, Ensemble]; Rashidra Scott (★FB, FB[Josephine, Ensemble]; Christian Thompson (★FB[Smokey Robinson, Ensemble]; and Candice Marie Woods (FB[Diana Ross, Ensemble]; Note that Morgan is the easiest ensemble member to identify; he’s the only white guy in the cast.

As for the rest, the multiple casting makes them hard to tell apart: Taylor Symone Jackson (FB[Johnnie Mae, Mary Wilson, Ensemble]; Jarvins B. Manning Jr. (★FB, FB[Al Bryant, Norman Whitfield, Ensemble]; and Nasia Thomas (FB[Mama Rose, Florence Ballard, Tammi Terrell, Ensemble].

Swings were Esther Antoine [Dance Captain]; Rodney Earl Jackson Jr. (FB); and Curtis Wiley (★FB).

As I said before, the orchestra was strong, under the direction of Kenny Seymour [Keyboard1]. The other members were: Sean Kana (FB[Assoc Conductor, Keyboard2]Sal Lozano [Reed]Dan Fornero (FB) [Trumpet, Flugelhorn]Robert Payne [Trombone, Contractor]; Keith Robinson [Guitar]; George Farmer (FB[Bass]; Clayton Craddock [Drums]; Mark Cargill and Lesa Terry [Violins]; and Lance Lee (FB) and Joey de Leon [Percussion]. Other music positions were: John Miller [Music Coordinator]; Steven M. Alper [Music Preparation]; Randy Cohen (FB[Keyboard Programmer]; Tim Crook [Assoc Keyboard Programmer]. Orchestrations were by Harold Wheeler. Music was by arrangement with Sony/ATV Music Publishing.

Finally, turning to the production and creative side. The scenic design by Robert Brill was tightly integrated with the lighting design of Howell Binkley and the projection design of Peter Nigrini. It made heavy use of projections and LEDs, and was at times very busy without the traditional scenic elements. It was, perhaps, a little too busy for my tastes, but generally worked. The sound design of Steve Canyon Kennedy was clear in the back of the theatre. The costumes of Paul Tazewell worked well, as did the hair and wig designs of Charles G. LaPointe. Rounding out the production team: Steve Rankin [Fight Director]; Edgar Godineaux [Assoc Choreographer]; Molly Meg Legal [Production Stage Manager]; Tara Rubin Casting [Casting]. Most of the other credits are management, but two are of note: Shelly Berger, who was the original Temptations manager, was the creative consultant, and Otis Williams, the last remaining original Temptation, was an Executive Producer. 

AIn’t Too Proud continues at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) through September 30. It was quite entertaining, even if it needs some work. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson Box Office.  Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

Today will bring  Paradise – A Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedy at the Ruskin Theatre (FB) on Saturday. The fourth weekend of September has Rope at Actors Co-op (FB), and the fifth brings Bark: The Musical at Theatre Palisades (FB). October is also getting quite full. It starts with Oppenheimer at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). The following weekend brings Moon River -The Music of Henry Mancini at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). The third weekend of October brings Shrek at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). October will close with the Contemporary Crafts Show in Pasadena.

Continuing the lookahead: November starts with She Loves Me at Actors Co-op (FB) and Stitches So Cal. The second weekend of November is very busy: Dear Even Hansen at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and A Bronx Tale at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), as well as A Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (OERM) (FB). The third weekend of November brings Finks at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). Thanksgiving weekend has Steambath at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB). December starts with the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), followed by a hold for the Canadian Brass at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Then we may travel up to the Bay Area for Tuck Everlasting at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (FB). Lastly, January will start with Bat Out of Hell at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

 

 

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