The story of Motown soul group The Temptations have been well-documented in memoirs, a biographical made for TV limited series and now returns to South Florida as a jukebox musical in “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations.” With classic hits of the 60s and 70s the show spans the band’s history from humble beginnings on the streets of Detroit to becoming international superstars. Based on the memoir of Otis Williams, “The Temptations” the show is framed through the last sole survivor of the currently active vocal group. “Ain’t Too Proud” plays now until May 14 with tickets available here.
With a marquee of Detroit’s “Fox Theatre” opening up to reveal the five classic Temptations members, the quintet struts onto the stage clad in their signature gray suits with lush harmonies performing “The Way You Do The Things You Do.” Breaking away from the group is the de facto leader Otis Williams (Michael Andreaus) who details the band’s first number one hit and takes the show back to the very beginning. Andreaus’ spin as Otis shows a natural prowess for showmanship. Leaning into the script where he can, to hold for audience applause and directly telegraph lines to the crowd for a response while delivering the monologue that guides the show’s action elicits the necessity for the story of The Temptations as a stage show. Quickly delving through Otis’ past run-ins with juvenile detention as the track “Runaway Child, Running Wild” underscores his troubled past. Discovering the group The Cadillacs, Otis finds music as a saving grace and vows to start his own band of vocalists.
Act 1 is packed with trying to establish how each Temptation lineup was formed as Otis, a musician in his own right but not the strongest singer of the group, meets the members individually to form The Distants. From the resonant bass of Melvin Franklin (Harrell Holmes Jr.), to the choreography genius Paul Williams (E. Clayton Cornelious), the soaring falsetto of Eddie Kendricks (Jalen Harris) and the initial leader Al Bryant (Devin Price) whose strident voice and formidable stage presence is felt in “Shout.” Falling out with previous manager Johnnie Mae (Brittny Smith) over royalties, Mae takes the name The Distants, forcing Otis to take the name The Elgins as Mae rides away on a Cadillac.
As the band is signed to Motown Records, from Otis’ chance encounter with label head Berry Gordy (Jeremy Kelsey) the calculated record executive signs the group to work through Smokey Robinson (Omar Madden) as quality control for their songs. While the musical “Dreamgirls” has explicitly stated that it was not directly about the girl group The Supremes, there is no doubt book writer Dominique Morriseau takes some influence from the musical with the character of Curtis being a representative of Gordy’s headstrong mannerisms. The band then drops the name of The Elgins to become The Temptations, so named for their tempting sound. However, issues with alcohol and disputes with bandmates would take out Al Bryant and in search of a new leading man recruit Jimmy Lee Ruffin’s younger sibling David Ruffin (Elijah Ahmad Lewis). If director Des McAnuff can be credited for one thing in this show, it is giving Lewis an absolute star role as the showman of The Temptations and changing the musical arrangements to feature Lewis’ strengths. Elijah Ahmad Lewis delivers one of the most physically tasking roles as the leader of the “Classic Temptations” with high flying mic grabs, jump splits and a gritty tenor that leaves chills throughout the audience there is a reason Ruffin is introduced with one of the band’s biggest hits “My Girl.”
Indeed each classic Temptation member gets a spotlight moment in their time on stage, as Harrell Holmes Jr. who plays Marvin gets some hilarious one-liners, original Broadway cast member E. Clayton Cornelious Paul Williams’ gets not only incredible choreography but the emotional core of the show’s second act, and Jalen Harris as Eddie Hendricks is the passionate, fiery falsetto of the group whose technical vocal lines soar above the cast in the hit “Get Ready.” By the end of the show, it is well-understood why the directing team casts a visibly older actor as Otis. As many of the “classic Temptations” befall medical issues, mental and physical turmoil eventually pass away leaving only Otis, currently alive at the age of 81.
Where the show lacks in its storytelling inevitably is in its representation of women, but its women performers are nothing short of phenomenal. In the first act, we’re introduced to Melvin’s Mama Rose, Otis’ wife Josephine, Johnnie Mae, Tammi Terrell and the iconic trio of The Supremes, who are posited as the foil to The Temptations. Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard at the time were Motown’s number one group, which the band frames as being bigger due to having “wider appeal” or possibly “whiter appeal.” With Terrell romantically involved with David Ruffin, she finds massive success with Marvin Gaye in the song “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” she unfortunately finds herself smacked around by Ruffin in their personal life before dying at the age of 24. Josephine is framed in the trappings of many women in biographical media about men in music, as the devoted wife who begs Otis to spend more time with his son and less on the road.
All these women are played by a quartet of actresses, Quiana Onrae’l Holmes, Brittny Smith, Amber Mariah Talley, Shayla Brielle G. The vital importance of swings and understudies cannot be diminished as swing/dance captain/fight captain Nazarria Workman swung into the Mary Wilson track during the show’s extended intermission. The Supremes make a big appearance at the top of Act 2 during “I Can’t Get Next to You” and Workman has to be commended for being able to switch into the role seamlessly being ready to jump in at a moment’s notice.
As the band moves into the late 60s, the backdrop of social unrest rears its head as the band tours through the South, facing racial taunts and violence. Eventually, Gordy leaves managing the regular operations of the band to the singular white character of the show, Shelly Berger (Ryan M. Hunt.) The hiring of a white manager ties into the show’s overall theme of integrity to be both authentically Black artists while trying to have more crossover appeal to a newly desegregated America. At the height of this narrative, the band pays tribute by kneeling in honor of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in the soulful ballad “I Wish It Would Rain.”
“Ain’t Too Proud” is pure Motown Gold. While its Broadway run was sadly shuttered in early 2022, its ability to pick up ticket sales and sell out houses across North America is a testament to the powerful story of a group that persevered throughout history to become an international hit, that themselves is touring to this day. “Ain’t Too Proud” plays now until May 14 with tickets available here.