The Academy of Music in Philadelphia at the Jan. 4 performance of ‘Ain’t Too Proud’ The Life and Times of the Temptations, based on Otis Williams memoir, one of the founding members of one of Motown’s supergroups of the 60s & 70s. This show has a bounty of Motown hits, but it is so much more than the typical ‘jukebox musical.’
Dominique Morrisseau’s book, which won a very deserved Tony nomination, weaves together the history of the group, Otis, and the other founding members- Eddie Kendricks, (tenor) Paul Williams (baritone), David Russin (lead baritenor) and Melvin Franklin (bass).
This is an ensemble lead cast and each delivers a tour de force vocal performances with R&B classics including My Girl; I Can’t Get Next to You; I Wish It Would Rain; Just My Imagination; What Becomes of the Brokenhearted; I’m Gonna Make You Love Me; Ball of Confusion; Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,
Not only is this a strong vocal cast- the orchestrations by Harold Wheeler, bring full dimension to the songs many in this audience have on their mental hard drive. Some of the numbers are opened up or presented in medley.
Most of the songs reflect the private dramas of the singers’ lives, for instance, the affect Williams’ preoccupation with the group affected his marriage and his relationship with his son, Quiana Onrae’L Holmes plays Otis’ wife Josephine, who expresses the struggles of being what amounts to a single mother raising their son Lamont, while Otis tours year after year. Lamont, played with haunting realism by Felender, who stands in back of the group and joins in singing their fiery social messaging song ‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone.’
Michael Andreaus’s performance as Otis with and it is a heavy assignment indeed, calling for non-stop singing, dancing, and narration. And speaking of dancing, the Temps had signature moves and this musical takes them to another level as well.
But most of the formidable choreography by Sergio Trujillo’s is exacting and full of unison esprit in homage to the group’s inspired dancemaker, Paul Williams. However breezily precise the group’s choreo is, Trujillo’s variations keep it equally dynamic. In the case of ‘Cloud Nine’ gives way to a pivotal drug scene, in slow-motion (to hilarious effect) doing drugs backstage.
E Clayton Cornelius’s Paul Williams, the peacemaker in the group, also battled sickle-cell anemia and as the pressure as their success grows, he escapes in the bottle. Williams died at age 34 and Corenlius’ solo as Williams on live television singing ‘For Once in My Life’ is one of the show’s many vocal knockout performances.
Gordy was insisting that the Temps would record songs that would crossover to white audiences, the model being The Supremes who had 6 no. 1 records in a row. The group was also booked on a Southern tour, where they were confronted by violent racist incidents.
Elijah Amad Lewis as David Ruffin has the swagger and electrifying dance moves of his own, meanwhile, in a phrase he can go from a classic soul crooner to a blues belter that brings the house down Jalen Harris gives a fine understated performance as the gentle tenor voiced Kendricks, and the forceful social justice voice of the group, telling Otis that they should refuse to perform in segregated venues in the South. He also sticks up for Ruffin whose ego and drug use get him fired.
One of the subplots is the dominance over the Temps standing with Motown, who have put all of their commercial muscle behind the Supremes, who had 6 no. one hits in a row. Berry Gordy (Jeremy Kesley) is portrayed as a cut and dry CEO of an empire. Smokey Robinson (Derek Adams) naturally high voice is played for laughs, more than the creative genius that drove Motown’s early years as its chief songwriter.
The scenes with the Supremes performing ‘Baby Love’ and ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ strike as gratuitous, but the silky vocals by Amber Maria Talley (Diana Ross), Brittny Smith (Mary Wilson) and Shayla Brielle G (Florence Ballard), carry it. Brielle G also has a pivotal scene as Motown vocalist Tammi Terrell and also brought the house down with a-gospel barnburner as the group’s greedy first agent.
There are moments when the book gets a bit dense under its own weight but keeping it out of the dramaturgical weeds is streamlined by director McAnuff in tandem the set and high-tech video projections design elements keep things moving at a fast pace.
In this broad genre of jukebox musical ‘Ain’t Too Proud’ will stand as one of the best, in its sleekness and theatrical legitimacy. But the best reason to catch it on tour is this cast and these musicians delivering the heart and soul of the Temptations and their times.