Succumb to the Temptations!

By: Dec. 22, 2022
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There must be legions of men and women since the 1960s who watched the rise of the Motown supergroup The Temptations and dreamt of warbling like the original quintet of Otis Williams, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks, Melvin Franklin and David Ruffin. But watching the mega-blast that is AIN'T TOO PROUD, the musical based on the group's history, this critic wanted nothing more than to be able to move like the members of Des McAnuff's cast even for five minutes. Alas, there is not a tool in choreographer Sergio Trujillo's quite formidable creative arsenal that could enable me to do the things these fellas do. So with jaw at floor level, I was more than content to watch. As should you be.

AIN'T TOO PROUD, on tour at the Ahmanson Theatre, tells the story of this pioneering vocal group through their songs. Or, more appropriately, through the songs that they sang since neither the original five nor any of the subsequent group members who have come in over the ensuing 60 years, were songwriters. The musical covers several decades, taking the men on the road, across the country an onto the country's biggest stages. Scenic Designer Robert Brill and projection designer Peter Negrini bring in a series of theater edifices and other historic and geographical markers to briefly ground things, but largely these are men eternally on the move. Except when they're performing.

With founding member Otis Williams (played by Marcus Paul James) as our narrator, we learn bits of biography, sky highs and the lowest of lows, a vapor trace of a romance here or there (the play contains only one female character who isn't a cypher). Group members get hooked on drugs and booze, turn on each other, forgive and even reunite, all to the strains of an unforgettable Motown soundtrack. That the Temptations were able to successfully cross over to integrate American music was no small feat. Judging by this depiction at least, the group was careful to keep feathers unruffled, not making a substantial imprint during the Civil Rights Movement nor protesting against the Vietnam War. Book write Dominique Morisseau (SKELETON CREW, PARADISE BLUE) is an excellent playwright of her own material and there are times when it feels like AIN'T TOO PROUD (based on Otis Williams' autobiography) is knocking at the door of something more thematically penetrating, but can't wait around long enough to see what might happen when that door swings open. That's cool. Like they say in one of the Temps' most political hit, "Ball of Confusion..." "...and the beat goes on."

Quite a beat it is. Music-wise, AIN'T TOO PROUD is pure fire. The show is stuffed with hits, some of which are presented as Temptations musical milestones while others are used to thematically underscore events in the guys' lives. The group opens for Motwon's biggest acr Diana Ross and - once they've equaled that group's fame - later shares the stage with Ross and The Supremes for a groundbreaking television special in 1968. Whether the songs are staged as snippets, montages or full-out performance numbers, the soundtrack of AIN'T TOO PROUD (with music director Kenny Seymour handling Harold Wheeler's orchestrations) legitimately blows the roof off the joint.

A few samples: "My Girl," a Smokey Robinson and Ronald White-penned hit through which we meet the Temps' magnetic new lead singer David Ruffin (Elijah Ahmad Lewis); "I Wish It Would Rain," which underscores the social unrest of the late 1960s and the fracturing of the original five; and the angry and bitter "Papa was a Rolling Stone," placed in the second act to usher in a veritable cascade of tragedy.

Musically-inclined director McAnuff, who established his Broadway bonafides with several rocking jukebox shows (from THE WHO'S TOMMY to SUMMER), is on solid ground here. AIN'T TOO PROUD figures to draw comparisons to JERSEY BOYS, another McAnuff-Trujillo collaboration that featured a soundtrack full of hits from a male vocal group. While the genre of music is different, both shows have a similar approach to storytelling and character development. Ultimately, I think the told-from-multiple-perspectives narration of JERSEY BOYS gave us a keener window into the characters and personalities of Franki Valli and the Four Seasons than what Morisseau has accomplished with the Temps.

AIN'T TOO PROUD offers one perspective. As the self-labeled backbone of the group and the narrator, Williams gets the final critical evaluation of all its members, himself included. Fair enough, even if the "we were always brothers" and "the music endures" messaging feels a bit pat.

That said, you would have to be lacking a soul - in every sense of the word - not to get with the sweet sounds and glassy smooth moves of performers Jalen Harris, Harrell Holmes, Jr. Marcus Paul James, James T. Lane and Elijah Ahmad Lewis and later - once the group splinters and expands - of Dwayne P Mitchell and Devin Holloway. Tempting, they most certainly are. Southland audiences would do well to succumb to their talents.

AIN'T TOO PROUD plays through Jan. 1, 2023 at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Photo of Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Marcus Paul James, Jalen Harris, Harrell Holmes Jr., and James T. Lane by Emilio Madrid


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