Thursday, June 30, 2022

Up for Review: Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations

June 9, 2022
Courtesy of the Wharton Center.
Courtesy of the Wharton Center. —

I do not usually seek out jukebox musicals, especially if the music used isn't my usual genre or has been recorded in my lifetime.

However, "Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations" made me realize that this music laid a legacy of Motown with songs that I had unknowingly heard throughout my life, making me appreciate blues and rhythm through the lens of the full story of the Temptations.

Talking to audience members, many were there because of nostalgia or their love for Motown. Knowing that so many of the audience members were there out of a passion for the group or their childhood memories created an atmosphere of familiarity and excitement that I couldn't ignore.

While it was an older crowd for the most part, that did not alleviate the energy in the Cobb Great Hall, filling with cheers when the Classic Five Temptations entered the stage. The narrator of the story being none other than the classic Temptation, Otis Williams, interacted with the audience from the very start, getting them to sing along and answer his question with woos, only increasing the personality of the show.

“My favorite character was Otis," audience member Tabriana Wilkins said. "That was dad’s favorite Temptation, that’s why. This whole day is about nostalgia.”

While I believe the main focus of the show was the group dynamic of the Temptations, I think the secondary focus was on how Otis Williams, played by Marcus Paul James, rose from the bleak circumstances he began the group out of: trying to escape the gangs and streets of Detroit. This sets up the show as a coming-of-age for the band, and I am a sucker for a coming-of-age story.

"Run Away Child, Running Wild" was the best song for this storytelling, opening this musical as more than a concert, but a triumph of musical storytelling, making this one of my favorite songs in the show.

The story went on to show how Otis curated the perfect group, having both funny and tense moments of negotiation and finding their sound. The scene where Paul Williams, the choreographer for the Temptations, played by Brett Michael Lockley, taught the group their classic dance moves, was a great addition to the story, showing their progress as a band in a wholesome, yet musically dense way.

One of my favorite moments of the show was the reveal of David Ruffin, played by Elijah Ahmad Lewis, as their lead singer, using arguably their most popular song, "My Girl," to depict the success they received after the addition of Ruffin to the group. It was soulful, and depicted Ruffin's mischievous personality and star quality well, which the audience ate up.

“Even though he was all the trouble in everything, his voice is excellent,” audience member Pam Shelle said.

Ruffin's voice was a fan favorite, but also added conflict to the show with his character, leading to the separation of the Temptations. He carried the storyline, along with the music of the Temptations. "I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)" was another great showcase of Ruffin's voice power paired with acting chops.

Other voices I loved in the show came in surprising places such as one of the smaller roles of the original Temptations to be kicked out of the group, Al Bryant, played by Treston J. Henderson. His voice out sang any of the others on stage in the first couple of Temptations numbers including "Shout."

Eddie Kendricks, played by Jalen Harris, also had an amazing falsetto voice that brought another harmonic layer to the group.

I also thought that the few women in the show were powerhouses such as Josephine, Otis William's love interest in the show, played by Chani Maisonet, singing the iconic ballad "If You Don't Know Me By Now." It was an incredibly emotional part of the show.

Another emotional part was when Paul Williams commits suicide after having to leave the Temptations when getting sick after a past history of alcoholism. "For Once In My Life" depicted this pain, making it one of the most tear-jerking parts.

The show also added the context of the Civil Rights movement and racial tensions, using the setting to move the storyline in a more intense, emotional direction. Depicting the hatred towards the group in the South, the Detroit riots in their hometown, and the assassination of Dr. King through music, these moments added a historical element to the show that was pertinent to its storytelling, making the story that much more impactful for me.

“It talked about real things, but also it's just a very fun show even when talking about serious topics,” audience member Alyx McEvers said.

I think it was an incredibly artistic and full-circle choice to make Otis William's child, whom he had not spent time with due to group responsibility's, bea central focus of the ending, with his death being the final and most impactful death to Otis. This introduces the last ballad of the show, "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," which I think tied up the show's main theme and repeated line: "progress takes sacrifice."

However, the finale, "I Can't Get Next to You," ended the show with a dance party, with everyone on their feet, giving a standing ovation and dancing along with the live band and all the performers in the show. While I did think the show ran a bit long and did not need as many songs as it did, it finished on both emotional and lively end notes. Concluding the show as perfectly as it had started: introducing both the ups and downs of the iconic group.

“All of (the show) was my favorite because there wasn’t a moment where I wasn’t moving along to the music," McEvers said.

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This musical proved that The Temptation's music and legacy lives on forever in the people that come to see this show, celebrating the music and wanting to learn more about the people who sang it. This show was well-rounded in its ability to tell a tragedy, but also the rise to success with its sacrifices and struggles.

"Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations" is exactly what people want from a biography and jukebox musical: great music, great stories, and a great atmosphere.

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