A scene from the touring production of Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations (Photos courtesy of Broadway in Columbus)
By Richard Ades
As you wait for Ain’t Too Proud to begin, the “marquees” projected onto the curtain establish the subject, place and mood. They advertise a “dance and show” featuring the Temptations at Detroit’s iconic Fox Theatre. And there are two additional words: “SOLD OUT.”
All of this is depicted in shades of gray, setting the tone for what is essentially a history lesson about the Temptations’ hard-fought quest to become the most successful R&B group of all time. But though that history is marked by struggle, conflict and loss, it’s accompanied by the some of the toe-tapping-est, spirit-lifting-est music that ever came out of Motown.
In other words, expect to have one of the best times you’ve ever had in a theater.
The musical’s book by Dominique Morisseau is based on a history of the Temptations written by founding member Otis Williams. Some have complained that this results in a one-sided look at the group, in contrast to the more even-handed Four Seasons musical Jersey Boys.
There’s some truth to this. Williams (masterfully played in the touring show by Michael Andreaus) serves as the history’s narrator and routinely depicts himself as the voice of reason who tries to keep the group on an even keel despite other members’ missteps, failings and ego trips. Even so, the general thrust of the show is not to cast blame but to explain how hard it is to achieve musical success, particularly when one starts out poor and Black.
The Temptations began making their mark during the 1960s, when civil rights struggles and an increasingly unpopular war were making front-page headlines. The musical touches on these issues and on the dilemma they raised for the group’s members, who were torn over whether they could address what was going on in their music without jeopardizing their “crossover” popularity with White audiences.
An interesting piece of trivia revealed by the show: The protest song “War (What is it good for?)” was meant to be recorded by the Temptations, but Motown execs decided it was too political. The result was that Edwin Starr got the recording deal and ended up with a hit.
Fortunately, the “Temps” got the chance to record plenty of other classic ballads and danceable anthems, and the best are peppered throughout the show. Thanks to Des McAnuff’s impeccable direction, Sergio Trujillo’s choreography and a cast that can handle both the tunes and the steps with aplomb, the result is like being in Detroit’s Fox Theatre on the aforementioned night and watching musical history come gloriously alive.
Along with Andreaus, central cast members include E. Clayton Cornelious as Paul Williams, Harrell Holmes Jr. as Melvin Franklin, Jalen Harris as Eddie Kendricks, and Elijah Ahmad Lewis as the mercurial, showboating David Ruffin. Numerous others display equal levels of talent in lesser roles.
Robert Brill’s scenic design and Howell Binkley’s lighting design are eloquently restrained, refusing to upstage the singers and dancers. A good-sized band led by Jonathan “Smitti” Smith and featuring several local musicians provides the accompaniment—and gets the chance to show what it can do on its own after the curtain call.
The moral: Don’t leave early.
Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations through April 18 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2½ hours including intermission. Tickets are $40-$135+. Columbus.broadway.com. For upcoming tour dates, visit ainttooproudmusical.com.