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‘Ain’t Too Proud’: Music shines bright in rough-and-tumble story of the Temptations’ climb

Jan. 18, 2023 Updated Wed., Jan. 18, 2023 at 4:49 p.m.

Jalen Harris portrayed Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations in the first national tour of “Ain’t Too Proud,” running through Sunday at the First Interstate Center for the Arts.  (Emilio Madrid)
Jalen Harris portrayed Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations in the first national tour of “Ain’t Too Proud,” running through Sunday at the First Interstate Center for the Arts. (Emilio Madrid)
By Carolyn Lamberson For The Spokesman-Review

From 1963 through today, 25 men have been members of the iconic R&B vocal group the Temptations.

But only one man, Otis Williams, has been there since the beginning.

Williams’ story, from juvenile delinquent to Grammy-winning Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member, is at the heart of “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.” The Broadway musical, now on its first national tour, opened at the First Interstate Center for the Arts on Tuesday, and continues through Sunday as part of the STCU Best of Broadway Series.

Based on Williams’ memoir and adapted by Detroit-born playwright and actress Dominique Morisseau, “Ain’t Too Proud” chronicles the Temptations’ rise from the gritty streets of Detroit to the top of the charts, with plenty of drama along the way.

Headed by Michael Andreaus as Williams, the “Ain’t Too Proud” cast is loaded with talent, especially the actors tasked with playing the two standout members of the “classic” Temptations lineup, David Ruffin (Elijah Ahmad Lewis) and Eddie Kendricks (Jalen Harris). While Lewis brings gravitas and a dangerous edge to Ruffin, a man who struggled with drug addiction and violence, Harris plays Kendricks as a chronic pot-stirrer. There’s a weariness to Andreaus’ Williams that seems spot on. Williams was and remains the glue that has kept the Temptations rolling.

Rounding out the show’s “classic lineup” cast are Harrell Holmes Jr. as Melvin “Blue” Franklin, the Temptations’ bass singer with a voice that’s “lower than the devil,” as Williams recalls, and E. Clayton Cornelious as Paul Williams, who created the group’s moves. Both give excellent performances.

We also meet, briefly, some of the replacement players. As Williams noted more than once, sometimes being a “Temp” meant “temporary.” Dwayne P. Mitchell brings a “Ruffian” swagger to Dennis Edwards, who replaced Ruffin and sang lead on the Temptation’s fourth No. 1 hit, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”

Like any good jukebox musical, the real star of the show is the music. When it comes to “Ain’t Too Proud,” we’re talking about some of the finest music created by an American group. Iconic tunes like “My Girl,” “Just My Imagination,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Get Ready,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” and of course the title track are expertly performed on stage by a deeply talented cast.

What is perhaps most surprising is the show’s choreography by Sergio Trujillo, who won a Tony for his work. The Temptations were almost as famous for their smooth moves as they were for their beautiful voices, but Trujillo succeeds in making the dancing a part of the story telling.

In Act II, for instance, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” does a lot of heavy lifting. Yes, the song serves as a metaphor for the sacrifices the men made in their quest for stardom – Williams in particular. Trujillo’s choreography reflects so much in its simple yet eye-catching way. The cast moves in perfect synchronization, even as the story Williams conveys in that moment is of a group breaking apart. It’s a memorable moment in a highly entertaining show.

One of the downsides of any jukebox musical that focuses on a group rather than a single performer is that the individual backstories get the short shrift. “Ain’t Too Proud” faces the same problem. It’s partly alleviated by making Williams the focal point – it’s his story as the last man standing.

Complicating things, too, is the fact that the story covers decades in the life of the Temptations, and not just any decades. We’re talking the 1960s and 1970s, a period of tremendous social change in America.

As a Black group on the Motown label that worked hard to appeal to white audiences, the Temptations walked a fine line. They dodged bullets in the south, mourned the loss of Martin Luther King, Jr., and found their voice politically as the Vietnam War raged. These key points in the band’s lives are reduced to mere minutes on stage. They’re minutes told well, but they can leave an audience wanting more.

Still, when the foundation of your show is timeless music such as what the Temptations put out into the world, it’s hard to go too wrong.

“Ain’t Too Proud,” reviewed Tuesday at the First Interstate Center for the Arts, continues through Sunday. For tickets and information, visit broadwayspokane.com.

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