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BWW Review: AIN'T TOO PROUD at The Hippodrome

The Life and Times of the Temptations

BWW Review: AIN'T TOO PROUD at The Hippodrome

For audience members of a certain age (like moi), jukebox musicals are much more than an evening's entertainment. Sometimes they are a Soul Train dance down the days of our youth. Such is the case with Ain't Too Proud, The Life and Times of The Temptations. Now playing in Baltimore at the Hippodrome, it is nothing short of spectacular.

The Temptations were founded in 1960 by Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, Elbridge "Al" Bryant, Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams, on the streets of Detroit during the early days of what came to be known as R&B. The group went through several iterations over the years, in a back story framed by the tumultuous times and the personal triumphs and tragedies of the members of The Temptations. Narrated by Williams, the story unfolds in a pretty linear fashion, punctuated by some of the most familiar music on the planet. There was nary a song that wasn't instantly recognizable by the vast majority of the audience, who hooted and hollered their approval after each one of them.

I was unaware of the histories of the members and it was fascinating to hear and see the drama played out on the stage. I didn't know that there have been some 24 Temptations over the years. I didn't know about the struggles with partner abuse, drugs, and the colossal egos of some of the most iconic members of the music world. What I did know was that this was the music of my childhood and early adult years, each and every song bringing back memories. With a book by Dominique Morisseau, based on the book by Mr. Williams, and with music and lyrics by (surprise!) The Temptations, the show runs long but passes by in a musical blur, chock full of the songs those folks of my generation grew up hearing on the radio and TV. The references to history defining events like the assassination of Martin Luther King, the disturbing instances of racism pervasive in the country, and particularly the ravishes inflicted on the group by drugs, infidelities and inflated egos make the story especially compelling.

Directed by Tony award winning Des McAnuff, with sizzling choreography by the also Tony award winning Sergio Trujillo, the show literally leaps and spins with all the iconic moves we've come to expect from these R&B super-groups. While McAnuff moves the action along and never lets the energy sag, it's Trujillo's choreography that sets the stage on fire in the hands and feet of this cast. The precision is impressive, the execution as well done as any I've seen of this genre. It's exhausting and exhilarating to watch, in the best possible way. Minimal set pieces are perfectly set off by the clever lights by Howell Binkley, and the inspired projections by Peter Nigrini are by turns eerie, unsettling, illuminating and always perfect for the scenes. Period hair and costumes by Paul Tazewell and Charles G. LaPointe respectively are spot on and capture the times expertly.

There are no weak links in this production. From the ensemble to the leads, each and every one of them is a star. I could write a chapter or two about any of them, but let's try to narrow that down some. First off, I have to give a shout out to local phenom Brett Michael Lockley, a hometown boy doing double duty on this tour as both Al Bryant and Norman Whitfield. Aside from his stellar vocals as Al, there is one, tiny moment that will keep me in his corner for all time. As he's exiting a scene early in the show, he does a high kick well over his head that made me go, 'day'm, the kid can DANCE, too!' Other moments that stick with me are Traci Elain Lee's brash and bold moment as Johnnie Mae, Deri'Andra Tucker as Diana Ross, as sensuous and shiny as the original (but, imo, a way better voice), and the combination of Devon Holloway, Lawrence Dandridge and Harris Matthew, who each replaces one failed original Temptation. Every one of them absolutely deserves to be following in those hallowed footsteps.

Of the cast portraying the original five members, each brings something different and wonderful to their roles. All of them are outstanding vocalists and can dance their collective and individual butts off. James T. Lane as Paul Williams is a nuanced and careful actor, and when he sings his heartfelt rendition of For Once In My Life, he is quite touching. Harrell Holmes, Jr. as Melvin Franklin, the basso profundo, is the lovable, huggable backbone of the group. As his health becomes more of an issue, Mr. Holmes displays just the right amount of vulnerability.

If Franklin is the backbone, then Marcus Paul James' Otis Williams is the heart. As the narrator and our guide on this epic musical journal, James is approachable, downright neighborly, and unerringly focused on his character's finest qualities. While he may not be the best vocalist on the stage, he more than holds his own and then some with his winning portrayal of the man who pretty much created and led this award winning team. His fealty is to the group, not the individuals in it, and he allows absolutely nothing to get in the way of their success. The real life Mr. Williams wrote the book on which the musical is based and is the sole-surviving member of the original founders.

The real stars of the production are the two actors who handle the most dramatic depictions of their characters. Jalen Harris as Eddie Kendricks is a vocal phenomenon, powerful, raw and absolutely riveting on stage. Elijah Ahmad Lewis as David Ruffin is his equal in terms of talent and star power. And the two of them on stage together is a combination rarely seen on any stage. The sheer dynamic power of their voices individually and as parts of the group are mind blowing. They dip and glide, slip and slide their way up and down the slopes of stardom like a couple of uber champions. This is what Broadway musical theatre audiences live for - to bear witness to this level of talent and cheer ourselves horse celebrating it.

Ain't Too Proud may be to some folks just another juke box musical, an excuse to trot out some golden oldies and make a few quick bucks. But for some of us, it is so much more than that. This was the soundtrack I grew up to. These were the songs I heard on the radio while riding in the backseat of my parent's car on long summer vacation road trips. And while studying for high school chem classes. Or necking in the front seat of my first car. Thank you, Temptations. And thank you to this all-star cast and production for reminding me. You were my everything. And after seeing this show, I remember why.

Ain't Too Proud runs through May 10, 2022 at The Hippodrome, 12 North Eutaw Street, Baltimore, MD. Click here for information and tickets.

Photo credit: (L-R)-Marcus Paul James, Jalen Harris, Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Harrell Holmes Jr., James T. Lane from the National Touring Company of Ain't Too Proud.Credit: © 2021 Emilio Madrid

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