‘Ain’t Too Proud’ Broadway Review: The Temptations Fight the Grind of Fame

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

The wonderful thing about biographies is that they allow writers to get away with an overload of melodrama and irony that would never work in fiction. Take the story of the Temptations, the most successful rhythm-and-blues group ever: Paul Williams committed suicide, David Ruffin OD’d in a crack house, Eddie Kendricks died of lung cancer, and Melvin Franklin destroyed his immune system through the overuse of cortisone while suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Which leaves it to Temptations founder and survivor Otis Williams to tell the story of these men in the new musical “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” which opened Thursday at the Imperial Theatre.

Besides eschewing the drugs, booze, women and the egomania that brought down so many of the other Temptations, Otis Williams had it relatively easy in comparison. He only got his girlfriend pregnant, endured a shotgun wedding and promptly ignored his wife before she left him for another man. Years later, his only son died in a construction accident at age 22.

In other words, “Ain’t Too Proud” delivers more traumas than “The Jersey Boys,” “The Cher Show,” “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” and “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” combined.

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Dominique Morisseau’s book for “Ain’t Too Proud” is based on Williams’s autobiography, “The Temptations,” and may explain why Williams is the most genial subject of a musical since Carole King, whose show would more aptly be titled “Nice.”

Derrick Baskin’s impersonation of Otis Williams defines the word “innocuous,” even though late in the musical he is accused of being a control freak. Here, control freak is an encomium for a man coping with drug addicts, alcoholics and egomaniacs. During the overly long first act, Baskin/Williams is able to resolve in record time every problem the Temptations encounter: A feisty manager is fired and a demanding mother is appeased within minutes of being introduced. Rather than dramatizing the group’s rise to stardom, Morisseau’s book has Baskin/Williams narrate it.

Real drama doesn’t arrive until singer Al Bryant (Jarvis B. Manning Jr.) is replaced by David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes). There are four more musicals to opens this Broadway season, but it’s difficult to imagine a performer more energized in any of them than Sykes. His superstar-making turn as Ruffin sums up that old adage about the brightest burning out the fastest.

Baskin/Williams keeps telling us that the Temptations are a group, and how it’s not about any one star. Sykes defies that platitude with every song he sings, every jump and split he lands, every mic he tosses and catches in the air. Sykes makes it totally understandable why such a talent would keep the others waiting, miss engagements and then show up uninvited to crash performances after he’d been fired from the Temptations.

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If only Ruffin/Sykes were narrating “Ain’t Too Proud.” For one thing, we’d be spared the cliched build-up to the group’s success and the endless parade of funerals at the end.

It makes dramatic sense that Ruffin’s closest ally in the group is Kendricks, especially as played by Jeremy Pope, hot off his own breakthrough performance in the just-closed Broadway drama “Choir Boy.” Both men exude an aura of suspense and danger on stage, as if each song could be their last. They’ll worry about their aching joints and vocal chords in the morning.

Playing Paul Williams and Melvin Franklin, respectively, James Harkness and Jawan M. Jackson impress with their vocals. Baskin appears to be the weak link, but surprises with a stirring “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” near the end. It’s Sykes and Pope, however, who prove that the parts can sometimes be much greater than the whole.

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Why do audiences love these cautionary showbiz tales? Do we need to see how miserable the rich, the talented and the famous really are under all that money and glitz?

Des McAnuff’s direction of “Ain’t Too Proud” gives us both the alluring razzle-dazzle and the underlying nightly grind of touring. Repeatedly, the Temptations perform to us out front, then turn to deliver the next few bars to the other three walls of the stage. Meanwhile, Robert Brill’s scenic design and Peter Nigrini’s projections give us the towns the men are playing — Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver. After a while, it’s all a blur and we understand how a gifted talent like Ruffin’s just doesn’t fit within that box.

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‘White Noise’ Theater Review: Daveed Diggs Dazzles in Suzan-Lori Parks’ New Race Fantasy

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Fantasies can be difficult to review. The usual dictums regarding character and plot development just don’t apply, since fantasies set up and proceed on their own logic. Suzan-Lori Parks’ fantasy “White Noise,” which received its world premiere Wednesday at the Public Theater, is written as if a very important amendment to the U.S. Constitution never existed, and proceeds from there. (Paul Beatty used the same subject matter to spin his own Swiftian tale, “The Sellout.”)

The four characters in “White Noise” aren’t so much characters as they are archetypes of race, class and privilege who level stinging barbs at one another that would immediately vaporize any other real-world interracial friendship or affair. And that’s true before Parks drops the play’s big bomb.

Where “White Noise” quickly and repeatedly sheds its more fantastical elements are in the four remarkable monologues interspersed throughout this two-act, three-hour drama. There’s the white college instructor Ralph (Thomas Sadoski), who loses out on a tenured professorship to a person of color. His girlfriend, a black woman named Misha (Sheria Irving), takes angry telephone calls from viewers of her livestream show, “Ask a Black.” Their good friend Dawn (Zoe Winters) is a white lawyer who’s defending a black teenager who’s actually guilty of the crime as charged. And Dawn’s boyfriend, Leo (Daveed Diggs), is a black artist who suffers from insomnia for all those things that sum up Ralph, Misha and Dawn, and more.

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Leo’s alternately funny and painful monologue kicks off “White Noise,” and Diggs turns this rambling reverie into a plea for understanding that prepares us (almost) for the character’s outrageous wager to his best friend, Ralph. The actor’s Tony-winning turn in “Hamilton” was only a warm-up for the ways in which he grounds “White Noise.”

After this opening tour de force, the other actors are at a distinct disadvantage in our warming to them — until, one by one, each gets a turn to speak to us directly. Each monologue is a veritable essay on the subject of race in America, and yet each is as personal and heartrending as Leo’s woozy sleep-deprived meditation. Oskar Eustis’ even-handed direction makes sure that Irving, Sadoski, and Winters nearly match Diggs’ sheer intensity and charisma in these individual moments, which turn out to be the most character-driven aspects of Parks’ fantasy.

One of those characters tell us, “Some folks are doing their best to make things right, but to really fix the s—, you gotta go all the way back. Back through the portal of history, back through the rabbit hole, the abyss, the void, back through the wormhole, yeah, the wormhole as wide as the world.”

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Before this review reduces “White Noise” to a sermon or lecture, it’s appropriate to note that Parks writes great sketch comedy. And it’s the first play I can ever remember seeing that puts a bowling alley on stage (scenic design by Clint Ramos). It’s a bit startling at first to have the bowling balls coming right at you, and Parks mines that sport (the only one you can play while smoking and getting drunk) for enormous laughs. Even more uproarious is the scene where the rejected Ralph secretly phones into his girlfriend’s show to “ask a black” about his recent job humiliation. Irving’s quick segues from playing a hyper-educated woman to dialing up “the ebonics” for her on-air persona provide a master class in racial stereotypes.

These sketches float the first act of “White Noise,” making it the fastest 90 minutes in recent theater history.

The provocative wager between Leo and Ralph — no spoilers here about its nature — bears immediate positive results: Leo can sleep; he doesn’t even need that white-noise machine. And the previously unpublished Ralph immediately gets a story accepted by the New Yorker. (I told you that “White Noise” is a fantasy.) But those funny sketches turn ugly in Act 2: “Ask a Black” begins to torment Misha; the nights of bowling are now drenched in violence.

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A final match at the bowling alley lays out the marriage of capitalism and cultural appropriation, and springs directly from Leo and Ralph’s visit to a secret society of privileged white men. The two men are so hard-wired (see the “some folks” quote above) that they give entirely different monologues to describe what transpired in this private fraternity. Could Parks have called it something other than the White Club? Like those stinging barbs her couples level at each other in the first act, she utilizes short cuts to energize the drama. Making Dawn a lawyer is another short cut.

Parks also creates some convoluted twists to make Ralph both wealthy and neglected by his father. Oh, to be white, male and heterosexual! It’s amazing such a person even dares go to the theater anymore. But to pile on this white/male/straight stereotype, it’s not necessary to give Ralph so much childhood trauma. He’s the kind of guy who wouldn’t recognize his own sense of entitlement and privilege regardless of his upbringing.

More troubling are the play’s two magical bisexuals. Parks uses sexual orientation the way a costume designer switches clothes on an actor: It’s a mere point in the thesis or bump in the plot to keep an audience from falling asleep. You might as well call it gay face.

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‘Nantucket Sleight Ride’ Theater Review: John Guare Takes a Big Dip Off the Island

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

New plays, even those running close to two hours, tend to forgo an intermission. An exception is John Guare’s “Nantucket Sleigh Ride,” which had its world premiere Monday at LCT’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre. For good reason, there’s an intermission after a relatively short first act. Audience members, not to mention the actors, needs to catch their collective breath. Guare has packed enough plot into those first 45 minutes to fuel a dozen plays by Mamet or LaBute.

John Larroquette plays Edmund Gowery, a contemporary businessman who, 50 years ago, wrote one successful play, “Internal Structure of Stars,” but never had the inspiration to write another, much to his regret. “Nantucket Sleigh Ride,” for the most part, is a flashback to the events following a 1975 amateur production of “Internal Structure” in Nantucket when this promising playwright bought a house on the island as an investment only to discover that a kiddie-porn ring has been operating from the property.

The young Gowery copes with not writing a second play by working on two film projects that drop into his lap while dealing with the Nantucket police. One screenplay is a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion,” to star Jane Fonda and Robert Redford and be directed by Roman Polanski. Only slightly less dazzling is the other project, to be produced by Disney from a series of children’s books written by the father (or maybe it’s the grandfather) of a woman named Elsie (Clea Alsip) who starred in the Nantucket production of “Internal Structure,” which Gowery refused to see because he hated amateur actors, much to the regret of everyone on the island but especially Elsie who never recovered from the snub.

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This brief synopsis of the first act leaves out two adulterous affairs, the frequent appearances of Jorge Luis Borges (who happens to be Gowery’s favorite writer), the movie and the novel “Jaws” (which was the must-see movie and the must-read novel of 1975) and the amnesia of Elsie’s two sexually exploited children (Adam Chanler-Berat and Grace Rex), who set “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” in motion with their visit to the older Gowery’s office.

Because there’s more action than an action movie, Larroquette doesn’t so much perform in this comedy as he tells it to us. Often, his conversations with the other actors are not face to face; rather, the second level of David Gallo’s set provides a kind of panoramic cupboard that opens to reveal various people whom Gowery speaks to in his imagination or on the phone.

Larroquette is a magnificent narrator. He also segues miraculously between the present and the past to convey both an older man’s smugness (for being wealthy) and a younger man’s angst (for being creatively burnt out). Even more inspired is German Jaramillo, who makes a most enchanting Jorge Luis Borges.

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While attempting to follow the first act’s ever-twisting plot, however, one’s mind may drift to incidental problems with the play and its production. For starters, Jerry Zaks’ direction emphasizes the farcical situations, but most of the eye-popping performances are merely manic and not remotely amusing. Then there are Gowery’s many quotes from Borges, especially his “Labyrinths,” which bear almost no relation to the many labyrinths of Guare’s story. Also, Gowery uses a rotary phone in the 1975 scenes but makes the 2019 mistake of punching it. Over two decades ago, Paul Rudnick used that joke to much better effect in his “In & Out” screenplay. And very odd is Gowery’s “Suspicion” rewrite. He is asked to give the source of the heroine’s wealth, because Hitchcock failed to reveal it in the original. Um, no. The parents of Joan Fontaine’s character are rich, hence she has money.

That’s the first act of “Nantucket Sleigh Ride.” In the second act, the triple-cast Douglas Sills shows up as Walt Disney, fresh from a cryogenic chamber, his suit festooned with icicles (costumes by Emily Rebholz). Even more momentous, we learn that “Nantucket sleigh ride” is an old sailors’ expression that describes what happened when a harpooned whale used to drag a boat through the ocean waters. Usually, the animal died, but sometimes it was the men who were plunged to their death. Plays sometimes experience a similar sinking feeling.

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Broadway Box Office Warms To $33M; ‘Burn This’, ‘Hillary And Clinton’ Arrive

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‘Kiss Me, Kate’ Broadway Review: Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase Are So in Love

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Cole Porter has suddenly grown a heart as big as Rodgers & Hammerstein. It’s just a guess, but musicals like “Oklahoma!” and “The King and I” receive more revivals than ones by Porter because they’re musical romances. Porter, on the other hand, wrote musical comedies, not that he didn’t know how to write a terrific love song. Take “So in Love” from “Kiss Me, Kate,” which opened Monday at Roundabout’s Studio 54. It comes early in the show, and as sung by Kelli O’Hara in this revival, it makes the next two and a half hours glow with the wistful longing and sweet desperation of a diva in love.

Despite her Tony Award and long career on Broadway, the word “diva” has never quite fit O’Hara. Indeed, she’s an odd choice to be playing a movie star who’s returning to the theater to play opposite her former husband in a musical version of “The Taming of the Shrew.” The only word less appropriate than “diva” for O’Hara would be “shrew.”

Her masterful rendition of “So in Love” is so heartfelt that we may overlook her rather genteel take on the Bard, but maybe not. O’Hara plays the movie star Lilli Vanessi for real, turning her into a cool Veronica Lake complete with long, sometimes peekaboo, blond hair. There’s nothing send-up or buffoonish about this performance; in fact, she sometimes conveys the impression that her Lilli is slumming a bit in this less than first-rate production of a musical “Shrew” that’s opening in Baltimore. (David Rockwell’s sets are appropriately seedy looking.).

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What O’Hara is is in love. When Lilli’s ex-husband Fred Graham (Will Chase) sends a bouquet to his current paramour, the chorus girl Lois Lane (Stephanie Styles), and the flowers end up in the star’s dressing room by mistake, O’Hara’s meltdown when she learns the truth is a heartrending reversal of her singing “So in Love.” By the way, O’Hara is in great voice throughout and has never sounded more thrilling.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire — and Chase presents a red-hot lover on the rebound. He eschews playing the impresario-actor Fred Graham as a big ham. He’s actually an excellent Petruchio in the musical-within-a-musical scenes, and his pursuit of Lilli backstage is tinged with just enough recklessness to make it real. It’s a little odd to hear this character’s music, originally written for a bass-baritone, to be sung by a lighter voice. Chase’s best notes are up there in tenor territory, but at least they’re good notes.

Scott Ellis can be credited with keeping his two leads playing from the same slightly jaded Valentine’s Day poem. He wisely keeps the more manic comedy to the show’s secondary couple, Lois Lane and her boyfriend, Bill Calhoun. Playing that chronic cuckold, “High School Musical” and “Dancing With the Stars” alum Corbin Bleu leads a spectacularly danced “Too Darn Hot,” with choreographer Warren Carlyle in top form.

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Slightly more droll are the twin vaudevillians John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams as two gun-toting gangsters. The shtick is expertly handled and marred only by the  inclusion of a 21st-century joke about gun control.

The other misfire is the handling of “From This Moment On,” delivered by Lilli’s fiance, Gen. Harrison Howell (Terence Archie), in a way meant to show the character’s dictatorial approach to love. (The 1999 Broadway revival of “Kate” turned Harrison into a general, and that revision of Sam and Bella Spewack’s 1948 book stands here.) Archie’s under-pitch singing brings a certain levity to the number, but sometimes his horseplay with O’Hara borders on physical abuse.

In that 1999 revival, Marin Mazzie gave the audience a big wink at show’s end to assuage any sexist taint. O’Hara’s wry retreat with Chase is much more sophisticated.

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Amy Schumer to Star in Film Version of Tony-Winning Play ‘The Humans’ for A24

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Amy Schumer is set to star in “The Humans” at A24, an adaptation of a Tony-winning play from Stephen Karam, an individual with knowledge of the project tells TheWrap.

Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, Richard Jenkins and Jane Houdyshell, who is reprising her role from her Tony-winning Broadway run, are starring in the film adaptation. A24 is developing it with IAC and Scott Rudin and Eli Bush producing for Scott Rudin Productions.

Karam is also writing and directing the film adaptation of his Broadway show.

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“The Humans” is set at Thanksgiving and follows the Blake family in their run-down Manhattan apartment as they argue and deal with aging family members, illnesses, economic woes and frustrations over religion.

“The Humans” was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2016, and it won the Tony Award for Best Play along with three other Tonys, including Best Featured Actor Reed Birney and Featured Actress Houdyshell. The play premiered in Chicago in 2014, went to Off-Broadway in 2015, and then transferred to Broadway in 2016.

Schumer most recently starred in “I Feel Pretty” and is repped by WME and Maverick Management.

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Hugh Jackman to Star as Harold Hill in ‘The Music Man’ Broadway Revival

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Hugh Jackman will return to Broadway to star in the 2020 revival of “The Music Man,” producer Scott Rudin said on Wednesday. Jackman will play the beloved and coveted role of Professor Harold Hill in the latest version of the Meredith Wilson classic.

This “Music Man” will be directed by Jerry Zaks with choreography from Warren Carlyle. Performances are slated to begin on Sept. 9, 2020, with the official open set for Oct. 22, 2020. We’re not sure yet which theater the new “Music Man” will inhabit, but it’ll be a Shubert.

Jackman, who has played Wolverine in the “X-Men” films and starred in the 2012 big screen adaptation of “Les Miserables,” won a Tony Award for 2003 play “The Boy From Oz.” He was also the centerpiece of 2017 musical movie “The Greatest Showman,” portraying P.T. Barnum.

Additional casting, including the role of “Marian,” will be announced later, producers said.

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“The first musical I was ever a part of was the phenomenal ‘The Music Man,’” Jackman said on Wednesday. “The year was 1983, and I was at Knox Grammar School in Sydney, Australia. I was one of the traveling salesmen, and I think I can actually (almost) remember that unforgettable opening number! That was probably the moment when the magic of theater was born in me.”

“The idea of bringing ‘The Music Man’ back to Broadway has been lurking in the back of my brain for a long time, maybe even for 35 years, and when Scott Rudin called me with that very idea, I was floored,” he continued. “To finally be doing this is a huge thrill.”

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“There is just no way to accurately describe the level of excitement I feel about the opportunity to present Hugh in what I think is the best role ever written for an actor in all of Broadway musical theater,” Rudin said. “Although I have spent a lot of time and energy wishing there was a way to stop the passage of time, this is the one moment when I wish it would just move faster. I can’t wait for us to begin working on this together in earnest.”

“The Music Man” debuted on Broadway on Dec. 19, 1957. It went on to win five Tony Awards, including the prize for Best Musical, and ran for 1,375 performances.

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