Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations
While we appreciate a storyline to string those songs together, we can tell from a mile away when a plot has been contrived purely to shoehorn in a necessary track. Ain't Too Proud had been running for about a year on Broadway before the pandemic forced its closure along with every other production in town, but unlike so many others, the show actually reopened a year later and had a second healthy run before it was done. I'd say the reason there was an audience for it to come back to is because it stands alongside Jersey Boys and Moulin Rouge! as one of the better examples of what a jukebox musical can be.
Some of the saga of The Temptations is rather well known: the rivalry with the Supremes (Amber Mariah Talley, Shayla Brielle G., and Traci Elaine Lee) for chart and crossover dominance; the troubled and contentious departures of David Ruffin (a strong and sometimes shouty Elijah Ahmad Lewis) and Eddie Kendricks (Jalen Harris, possibly better suited for other musical styles); the creative tensions with Berry Gordy (Jeremy Kelsey) and the forays into politically charged songs. Ain't Too Proud gives us a much more detailed, much fuller account, staying fairly true to chronological order. Hats off to Dominique Morisseau for the tightly efficient book, though there were times when I would have appreciated some additional explicit time markers to know more specifically where in the seventies we were.
Founding member Otis Williams (Michael Andreaus) serves as our narrator, possibly because he appears to have been sober more often than anyone else, and more possibly because he seems to have held the group together in the face of many of its external challenges. Ironically, he doesn't get a proper solo until the very end of the show, but he walks us through a truly fascinating story, stepping out of the choreography to give us exposition before stepping just as seamlessly right back in. We get a moment of cautionary gang/jail backstory that shows us the early choice Otis made, and then the first Temptations start sliding in and out as Otis trial-and-errors the group together, ultimately settling on Melvin Franklin (Harrell Holmes, Jr., a subtle standout, maybe because there's something so satisfying about seeing a big man dance so nimbly) and Paul Williams (E. Clayton Cornelious) to compose what became known as the "classic five" lineup, donning the first of costume designer Paul Tazewell's endless supply of matching blazers.
When I say "sliding in and out," I mean that literally; axed members find themselves on sliding platforms that take them into the wings like set pieces no longer needed after a scene, while new members slide out to take their place. This device is humorous, but it's also an indication of how effortlessly Robert Brill's scenic design and Des McAnuff's direction maintain the forward momentum of this production. With a minimal use of flies, those very effective sliding platforms, bits of furniture, and a healthy assist from Howell Binkley's just-right lighting design, Brill and McAnuff put on a master class in transitions that is as sure-footed from start to finish as the choreography.
As choreographer, Sergio Trujillo seemingly inhaled every signature move ever performed by a Motown act and has breathed new life into those classic steps, earning the only Tony Award the Broadway production snagged (among 12 nomimations). While the five actors did an admirable job with both the dancing and the singing at the performance I saw, they did give me cause to observe how rare it is to find a quintet that blends as well as The Temptations did. The sound, and in particular the relative volume of lead vocals, always seems to be a challenge for touring productions at DPAC, so that might have had something to do with why I rarely felt as though I was hearing all five Temptations at the same time.
Shows about men frequently give short attention to the women in their lives, and there's a bit of that going on here, underscored by the fact that four women cover twice as many roles as well as going in drag to double up the male ensemble at times. But Tiffany Frances (as Otis's long-suffering wife, Josephine) and Shayla Brielle G. are standouts for their vocal performances.
The ace in the hole for Ain't Too Proud is that it has dramatic tension to spare. This group seems to have had to contend almost continuously with so much strife, the exhilaration of stardom is barely present in this show. When "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" (admittedly a solo hit by Jimmy Ruffin, David's older brother, but no harm done) appears as essentially the eleven o'clock number for this show, it is both well-earned and more poignant than anticipated.
There is a point late in the second act of Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations when those Temptations, a quintet for most of their career, mushroom into a septet. Shortly after that, a nearly numberless procession of Temptations emerges from the wing, almost reminiscent of the infinitely multiplying chorus line of, well, A Chorus Line. It was at this point that I fully understood that this story and this musical are less about any person or group of people than the phenomenon of the pop group that consumes, sometimes literally, its members and demands replacements to keep the machine running. As unquestionable as the accomplishments of The Temptations are, what lingers when the curtain falls on Ain't Too Proud is a sense of the incredible toll being in this group took on virtually every member of its classic line-up. It is time well spent, particularly during Black History Month.
Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations presented by WRAL Greatest Hits of Broadway, runs through February 11, 2024, at Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St. Durham NC. For tickets and information, please visit www.dpacnc.com or the Ticket Center at DPAC in person, or call 919-680-2787. For information on the tour, visit ainttooproudmusical.com.
Music and Lyrics: The Motown Catalog