If You Don’t Know Them By Now: The Temptations Musical Rocks the Jukebox Genre
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations is the story of a time, a place, and a sound, just as much as it is the people. The national tour of this Motown hit-packed Broadway show performs at the Paramount Theatre through February 5.
Who knew you could be on top of the world and still feel beneath it?
The music is color blind.
But the world isn’t.
Tell the story. Thrill the audience. Show off the performers.
It’s the formula for a good biographical jukebox musical, a genre that almost never reaches its potential but seems to be proliferating nonetheless, hellbent on serving up quantity over quality. Often, it seems like an excuse to make a theatrical production out of a bunch of songs shoddily held together with a few biographical points and some throwaway dialogue.
On the plus side, if Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations is terrible, at least the music will be good, right?
Yes, but it never needed a fallback. With a script written by the Genius award-winning playwright Dominique Morisseau (best known for her cycle of Detroit-centric plays, including Skeleton Crew), the Motown-set Ain’t Too Proud raises the bar for what a historical jukebox musical can be.
And while it’s drawn comparisons (sometimes unfavorably) to Jersey Boys and Dreamgirls, to me Ain’t Too Proud lands ahead of both, for three reasons: the social context is better situated, the music is better, and the songs are better incorporated, setting scenes and accentuating themes rather than landing next to factual recitations or contrived lines.
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Weaving history through music and music through history, Morisseau creates a detailed, multi-layered portrait of the chart-topping musical group, an explosive era in American history, and an iconic place in time (Hitsville at its height). It looks at the social milieu as much as it does at the highest highs and lowest lows of the humans behind the hits.
Especially pronounced on tour, that social context included deep-seated segregation enforced with violence, bombings of Black churches, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; and it eventually has these Black hitmakers inquiring about a persistent White paradox:
You always talking about crossing over,
they never trying to cross over to us.
It’s a tension the powers that be at Motown, Barry Gordy’s iconic record label that’s just about synonymous with the crossover hit, won’t try to resolve. But the observation hangs in the air, coloring the show just as surely as it describes these salient intersections of Blackness and commercial entertainment.
As the show tells it, to maintain the commercial appeal that built Motown’s success, Gordy reined in the Temps from doing too much — no writing, no politics, and limited creative control. Still, much was demanded of them: stellar harmonies, ethereal solos, killer athleticism and coordination, impeccable style, confident swagger, and enough focus, sacrifice, and good health to make it through grueling tours where life was more away than home.
On the Ain’t Too Proud stage, much of that is required of the actors playing them, too. And they’re pretty incredible.
Taking the lead as the “Classic Five” are Michael Andreaus (as founding member Otis Williams), Harrell Holmes Jr. (founding member Melvin Franklin), Jalen Harris (founding member Eddie Kendricks), E. Clayton Cornelious (founding member Paul Williams), and Elijah Ahmad Lewis (as best-known lead singer David Ruffin); plus Devin Price as lesser-known founding member Elbridge “Al” Bryant (whom Ruffin replaced) and Dwayne P. Mitchell as Dennis Edwards (who replaced Ruffin).
All have tight moves and sweet vocals. Lewis dazzles with showy dance moves and leaping splits. Harris and Price hit the impressive high notes, while Holmes Jr. undergirds with a deep bass. The group is surrounded by a strong supporting cast; among them, Shayla Brielle G. as Mama Rose is formidable, and Amber Mariah Talley pitches an unmistakable front-woman attitude as Diana Ross.
Powered by a rockin’ band, the musical hits — some 30 tracks in all — are enthralling, addictive, and, occasionally, heartbreaking. (“I Wish It Would Rain,” in particular, comes in at some stunning moments.) Visually, they’re paired with excellent (and Tony Award-winning) choreography by Sergio Trujillo; scenic and projection designs (by Robert Brill and Peter Nigrini) that set the feel of a place but are always in motion; and sharp costumes by Paul Tazewell. Direction by Des McAnuff and (associate) Logan Vaughan is just as sharp and smooth.
Temptations founder (and the only living original member) Otis Williams’ autobiography supplies the fodder for Morisseau’s script, and as a historical piece the show should be viewed with some skepticism that comes with a single-perspective narrative. When commercial success clashed with loyalties, and the united front clashed with egos, who’s to say who was most to blame?
But the show doesn’t get too loaded down with those issues of perspective, focusing instead on the time, the feeling, the music, and the legacy. In short, on what’s left of the whole when its members have gone.
It’s quite a legacy, and quite a show. If you love the sounds of Motown, don’t miss this one.
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations runs through 2/5 at the Paramount Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets are $52+, here. Accessibility notes: main restrooms downstairs and upstairs are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms on the main floor. Theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible. ASL-interpreted and audio-described performance on 1/29 (matinee), and open-captioned performance on 1/29 (evening); see notes on ticketing page for best accessible seating options.
Run time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with intermission.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.