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Motown icons the Temptations at the center of ‘Ain’t Too Proud’ at the FICA

From left, Marcus Paul James, Jalen Harris, Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Harrell Holmes Jr. and James T. Lane portray members of the Temptations in the national touring company of “Ain’t Too Proud.”  (Emilio Madrid)
From left, Marcus Paul James, Jalen Harris, Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Harrell Holmes Jr. and James T. Lane portray members of the Temptations in the national touring company of “Ain’t Too Proud.” (Emilio Madrid)
By Carolyn Lamberson For The Spokesman-Review

The list of acts who recorded for Detroit’s legendary Motown record label is enviable and includes some the best and most beloved performers in American history.

Diana Ross and the Supremes. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Stevie Wonder. The Jackson 5. Marvin Gaye.

That list is nowhere near complete without the addition of the Temptations.

The quintet behind such classics as “My Girl,” “Just My Imagination,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “The Way You Do the Things You Do” gets jukebox musical appreciation with “Ain’t Too Proud,” which comes to the First Interstate Center for the Arts for a six-day run beginning Tuesday as part of the STCU Best of Broadway Series.

Portraying David Ruffin, the vocalist who sang such classics as “My Girl” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” is Elijah Ahmed Lewis. Lewis is no stranger to Motown musicals, having played Stevie Wonder in the Broadway cast of “Motown: The Musical,” a company he was with for more than three years. He joined the Broadway cast of “Ain’t Too Proud” in the fall 2019.

“I’ve been in the Motown family for a while,” he said. “I think with both shows, especially with this one, I’m very honored to pay legacy and homage to these artists in the Motown catalog who have shaped the landscape of our music for America. It’s quite an honor. They’ve done a lot for our culture and to pay homage to them with my talent is the ultimate dream.”

As an actor who has in recent years been portraying real life people, he said his aim is to not merely impersonate.

“You want to embody, not copy, because there’s never going to be another them,” Lewis said. “One thing that (Motown founder) Barry Gordy has said is, ‘The truth is a hit.’ I take that with me because if you tell truth, it’s a hit. Whether you like it or not, that’s up to you. If you feel my truth, and when the audience feels my truth of the work that I’ve done and the information I’ve got, they get the essence of what I’m trying to do in not trying to copy or imitate.”

“Ain’t Too Proud,” which ran on Broadway for a little over a year before the COVID pandemic shut down live theater, is based on a memoir by Otis Williams, who is the only surviving original member. Lewis said he took his cues about Ruffin – the good and the bad – from Williams’ memories and from Ruffin’s family. Ruffin died in 1991 at age 50.

“Having the book and having Otis – Otis has been on this project since the inception, and he still is. He was just here in L.A. at our opening. He’s very hands on. We’re telling the story based upon his memory and being the last living Temptation. I also got in touch with David Ruffin, Jr., and I have a good relationship with him, just to get insight into what his dad was to him.”

Ruffin’s story isn’t necessarily a happy one. He was a drug addict and was known to be abusive to his partners. He was arrested several times and served time in jail for tax evasion. In recreating an immensely talented yet troubled character for the stage, Lewis is keenly aware of the need to strike the right balance.

“Even though there is that stigma with the drugs, and woman abuse, after all the stories I’ve heard and all that I’ve learned, I feel like it’s my job and duty in this role to show people that he was a human just like you and me,” Lewis said. “He’s the greatest lead male singer of all time in a group. That’s monumental, and with leads on some of the most popular songs, that still are popular today. I just want people to leave knowing that he was human just like you and me, and not to focus on the negative stuff.”

The show brings the band’s impressive musical output to the forefront, while weaving together the story of how they all met, the struggles they endured along the way, and their ultimate success. But the show is more than a collection of songs.

“You can take the music out of this musical, and it can be a straight play and be just as amazing,” Lewis said. “The music is an added bonus, because it’s ingrained in everyone’s brain. The story of how Otis begot this group, and how he’s still standing now, there are things that people don’t know, or that people may not remember.

“And also, what is a very key component to me is that there are a lot of things that are happening in society today that happened then,” Lewis added. “For people to see it reflect that it’s actually still happening, it’s a very important story that needs to be told now. Marrying all those together and you can’t go wrong.”

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