In an era of biographical musicals, “Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations” stands out from the crowd. Unlike several of the other biographical jukebox musicals that Broadway has spat out in recent years, “Ain’t Too Proud” is not presented as a typical storied plot with characters acting out the beginning, middle, and end. Instead, original and longest surviving Temptation member Otis Williams (Marcus Paul James) acts as narrator, telling the story of The Temptations as he follows the group from their humble beginnings in Detroit to their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As he describes the heartache, love, loss, betrayal, and political upheaval the group was forced to confront, key moments in Temptations’ history are punctuated with corresponding songs from the group’s expansive repertoire.
Thankfully, the show manages to avoid falling into the pattern that so many other biographical musicals find themselves following. Instead of cramming the artist’s music into the production as a plot device, “Ain’t Too Proud” follows the group’s journey like short bursts on a timeline with Williams narrating in between, allowing the music to stand on its own, rather than forcing it to reflect the plot in more literal ways. And in a way, isn’t this one of the most accurate ways the production could have depicted the history of The Temptations? As members of the group have come and gone over the years, the music is what has stood the test of time. But as a musical, this faster-paced flow manages to not only keep audiences entertained, but also allows the production to cover the group’s longer and broader history (as opposed to so many others that follow the artist’s “early career”).
Full of the slick choreography (thanks to choreographer Sergio Trujillo) and smooth harmonies that made The Temptations famous, the musical is chock full of the group’s biggest hits, including “My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” and “Since I Lost My Baby.” Starring as the original members of The Temptations, Marcus Paul James (as Otis Williams), James T. Lane (as Paul Williams), Harrell Holmes Jr. (as Melvin Franklin), Jalen Harris (as Eddie Kendricks), and Elijah Ahmad Lewis (as David Ruffin) capture all the suave and stylish charisma of the group without sacrificing any of the theatrical pizazz we have come to expect on the stage.
Each of the five of them brings something to the stage that would be entertaining enough on its own, be it Holmes’ deep bass, Lane’s firecracker dance moves, Lewis’ jazzy, rock-inspired growl, or Harris’ smooth, soothing voice. But when combined with the other members of the group, the result is a dazzling reminder of why The Temptations have become one of the most recognized and successful R&B groups in history.
In addition to the music and The Temptations themselves, we get a brief glimpse into their lives and those around them, including songwriters Smokey Robinson (Lawrence Dandridge) and Norman Whitfield (Brett Michael Lockley). But it is the women that come into their lives (however briefly) that are secretly stealing the show. Deri’Andra Tucker (as Supreme singer Diana Ross), Shayla Brielle G. (as Supreme singer Florence Ballard and Ruffin’s girlfriend Tammi Terrell), Traci Elaine Lee (as Supreme singer Mary Wilson and former manager Johnnie Mae), and Najah Hetsberger (as Otis’ neglected wife Josephine) all make the most of their limited time on stage with perfect harmonies and powerful, soulful belts of emotion.
When combined with a clever script from book writer Dominique Morisseau (which is based on Otis Williams’ autobiography “The Temptations”), the result is, well, tempting.
“Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations” will run at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts through January 16, 2022, and tickets can be purchased here. Run time is approximately two hours and thirty minute, including intermission. Due to language and thematic elements, the production is best advised for audiences age 12 and up. Please also be advised that the production does make use of strobe lights and smoke effects.
Feature Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy