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REVIEW: Ain’t Too Proud: What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?

Harrell Holmes Jr., Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Jalen Harris, Marcus Paul James, and James T. Lane star as The Temptations in the musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, which opened Tuesday night at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN.

When measuring records sold and overall artistic influence, The Temptations were undoubtedly one of the greatest groups in the history of American popular music. Formed in 1961, the Motown vocal ensemble still exists in some version today – even performing in concert in Salt Lake City on July 15, for example.

The Temptations’ greatest success, however, came between 1965 and 1976. This is the period from which most of its hits come, with a lineup of Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, and Paul Williams. The vocal quintet was known for combining catchy tunes with stylish outfits and precise choreography (a combination encouraged in many Motown acts by its executive, Berry Gordy).

The best part of The Temptations legacy appears in full force in Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, directed by Des McAnuff and playing at the Orpheum Theatre through July 10. Ain’t Too Proud opened on Broadway in 2019 and played through this past January.  It received 12 Tony nominations, winning for Best Choreography. The show also pulled in a Grammy nomination for its soundtrack.

Jalen Harris (center) and the National Touring Company of Ain’t Too Proud. Photo by Emilio Madrid.

As a jukebox musical, Ain’t Too Proud is overflowing with catchy songs that you can groove to. The score contains every one of the group’s signature hits (e.g., “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “My Girl,” “Since I Lost My Baby,” “Get Ready,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Just My Imagination,” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”), along with many songs only aficionados will know. This rich score is filled out with a few hit songs from the groups that competed with The Temptations for best in Motown: Diana Ross and the Supremes (Ross played by Amber Mariah Talley, Florence Ballard by Shayla Brielle G., and Mary Wilson by Traci Elaine Lee), as well as some other Motown hits.

Every song is performed with skilled harmonies and brilliant movement. Great credit must go, on one hand, to the performers:  Marcus Paul James (portraying Otis Williams), Harrell Holmes, Jr. (Melvin Franklin), Jalen Harris (Eddie Kendricks), Harris Matthew (David Ruffin), and James T. Lane (Paul Williams).  And credit must also, of course, go to choreographer Sergio Trujillo, associate choreographer Edgar Godineaux, music supervisor Kenny Seymour, and dance captain Brett Michael Lockley. The musical performances are very much in the spirit of The Temptations, and worthy of their legacy.

Alongside the music, Ain’t Too Proud narrates the origins, and the rise and fall of the group and its original members. The story is mostly told from the perspective of Otis Williams (on whose book, The Temptations, co-written with Patricia Romanowski, the production is based; Williams is listed as one of the musical’s Executive Producers). Williams is the last original Temptation still alive, and while his account likely shades some of the stories in his favor, the narrative on stage includes plenty of criticisms of his decisions in life and in music.

The Temptations were at the heart of the Motown music-entertainment juggernaut, appearing in real-life and on television with some of the biggest names in entertainment – like The Supremes. Photo by Emilio Madrid.

Williams comments on stage that great fame makes all problems worse. We hear of the losses to drugs and alcohol, disease and guns; we are told about domestic violence, absent spouses, absent parents, and far-too-early deaths. The harsh realities often play out to the lyrics of Temptations songs, like “I Wish It Would Rain” and “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.”  Some of the stories are more quirky than sad: we hear how David Ruffin, fired from the Temptations, still went on showing up at their concerts, going on stage, and grabbing the microphone mid-performance and singing his old parts (Ruffin and another previously fired Temptation, Eddie Kendricks, would briefly rejoin the group for a 1982 Reunion Tour). We also learn of the inevitable clash of egos, arguments about money, disagreements about artistic direction, and fights about how to mix social activism with commercial popularity. It is all effectively done, and persuasively acted, but it is hard for the audience not to be impatient to leave the depressing realities of life to get back to the more uplifting music and the dancing.

For fans who only knew them through radio and records, it may be surprising to learn that The Temptations had slick choreography and dance moves to go with their sleek vocals. The National Touring Company of Ain’t Too Proud. Photo by Emilio Madrid.

In a time of ongoing COVID, the program lists no fewer than three understudies for each major role (overall, there are seven people who understudy for more than one role – no small feat!).  On the evening I saw the performance, there were two replacements: the role of David Ruffin, normally played by Elijah Ahmad, was played by Harris Matthew; and the second, a compensating change: the (more minor) role of Dennis Edwards, normally played by Harris Matthew, was played by Kyshawn Lane.

The energy and charisma of both the original songs and the present-day performers are undeniable, and the sold-out audience could not help but move to the music, even as it was moved by the stories.  Those who love The Temptations, and those who do not yet know that they love The Temptations, should see this production.

The Supremes and other Motown acts also make appearances in the song-studded show, played here by Traci Elaine Lee, Deri’Andra Tucker, and Shayla Brielle G. Photo by Emilio Madrid.

Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations plays at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN through July 10. 

Brian Bix