“great songs, sensational dance but lacks emotional content”
Ain’t Too Proud, described as The Life and Times of The Temptations, directed by Tony-award winner Des McAnuff, and based on founder band member Otis Williams’ own memoir, is a whistle-stop journey through the history of the band from Otis’s discovery of music as a way off the Detroit streets, to becoming part of one of the most successful R&B groups of all time.
Otis tells us of his ambitions from the outset, “Singing is going to be my salvation” and the ethos of his group is that of all band members are brothers, “We all men, we all equal”. As the demanding life on the road, and the usual reliance on drink and drugs, takes its toll on the group, this maxim is severely tested. But, in essence, there isn’t a lot of life depicted on the journey and only a cursory look at the times. What there is, is some sensational song and dance routines.
The tour de force of this show is the outstanding Sifiso Mazibuko as Otis Williams. Stepping in and out of the song and dance line to narrate the story without missing a beat, he is close to ever-present throughout and if he begins to show signs of flagging by the finish, we can put it down to the aging of his character.
The opening half of the show though lacks spark. The songs are excellently performed and look amazing, but they are presented in small snatches, an accompaniment to the narrated story, which in itself does not excite. This begins to change with the arrival of the unpredictable David Ruffin (Tosh Wanogho-Maud) into the band and The Temptations’ first number one hit, My Girl. Some extra colour is provided with the inclusion of a three-song medley from The Supremes, described by Otis as The Temptations’ main rivals, which is one of the first act highlights. And as an example of how the songs reflect the narration, the group sings If You Don’t Know Me By Now just as Otis and his wife Josephine (Naomi Katiyo) split up.
As the group becomes more successful and looks to cross-over into the mainstream, a question is raised as to whether they are doing enough for fighting racial inequality. A clause in the band’s performing contract means their audience must not be racially segregated but the vital question is left open as monochrome projections show images of Detroit and Memphis ablaze, followed by the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Extra poignancy is found in the second half with the suicide of singer Paul Williams (Carl Cox) and images of the Vietnam conflict accompanied by a snatch of War (What is it Good For). The musical performance gets a lift too with longer song numbers, and a light show, particularly with the Reunion Tour and seven singers on stage rather than the usual five. The over-extended story of recording Papa Is A Rolling Stone becomes connected with Otis’s own story of missing his son growing up but any empathy is quickly swallowed up into the outstanding final number.
Ain’t Too Proud has great songs, sensational dance but lacks emotional content.
“if the onstage passion isn’t quite ‘electrifying’, the overall presentation is.”
Picture the scene in a cold, forbidding producers’ office. You’re pitching a musical. “What’s the plot?” they ask. Well; it’s boy meets girl, boy and girl indulge in a bit of ‘summer loving’ on holiday, boy spurns girl in the face of peer pressure back at school. Girl sees him for the shallow guy he is, so loses interest anyway. For some inexplicable reason she then decides that she wants him after all (teenagers, eh?). So, she changes her image, trashes what’s left of her endearing and intelligent personality, and dresses provocatively to entice this somewhat dumb and superficial guy. And – Hey Presto! They go together like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong.
If you haven’t already been shown the door, you might just get to throw in that you think a two-thousand-seater West End theatre is the perfect venue. Preposterous. So maybe you should start the pitch with the title. When “Grease” was released for the cinema in 1978 it became the highest grossing musical film ever at the time. “Grease” was, and still is, the word, as the title song informs us. The New York Times called it “terrific fun”. Four and a half decades later that description still applies.
The current revival at London’s Dominion Theatre harks back more to the original musical which preceded the John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John blockbuster, and which ran on Broadway for eight years until 1980. It’s London debut starred Richard Gere. But the familiarity is still there, and everything we simultaneously love and lambast is bursting at the seams in Nikolai Foster’s sumptuous production. There is a glorious mix of silliness and surreality, bubble-gum and bravado. No matter that the storyline is imperceptible to the point that the opening bars heralding each song are a welcome respite from the banality of the dialogue.
It is within the musical numbers that the heart of the show beats fiercely. There are a couple of additions to the set list, and a couple restored from the original, though these feel inconsequential when up against the wealth of crowd pleasers. Foster bravely doesn’t always play to the crowd, however, but instead injects a freshness that puts a new slant on some of Jim Jacobs’ and Warren Casey’s compositions. Highlights include Jocasta Almgill’s biting rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” or Olivia Moore’s poignant ”Hopelessly Devoted to You” during which she decides she no longer belongs on the side-lines.
Moore’s Sandy does flirt with feistiness, but the character cannot escape the constraints of the script. Even in the seventies one must have wondered why she submits to such gender stereotypical peer pressure; and the question certainly looms larger today. In fact, there are so many wrong messages bouncing off the walls of the auditorium. For the most part they are drowned out by the infectious rhythms of the music and the gusto of the performances, driven by the sheer power of Arlene Phillips’ choreography.
There is little to be gained from looking for nuance or, indeed, emotional punch. We don’t feel the ‘multiplying chills’ about which Dan Partridge, as Danny Zuko, faultlessly sings. But if the onstage passion isn’t quite ‘electrifying’, the overall presentation is. As the closing number suggests: “that’s the way it should be”. Or rather “shoo-bop sha wadda wadda yippity boom de boom”.