3/8/2022 AIN’T TOO PROUD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE TEMPTATIONS
Broadway in Atlanta / Fox Theatre
SKIN DEEP ON CLOUD NINE
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations is the 2018 Broadway Musical chronicling the career of The Temptations, the Motown Quintet that defined ‘60’s soul and ‘70’s Psychedelic Rhythm and Blues. As a teenager during their heyday, I was a fan of their “sound” and their songs and was delighted to sit in the Fox and revisit all their successes. Even their “misses” hit all the right nostalgia chords and sent me from the theatre on “Cloud Nine.” And yet, despite being cleverly constructed, energetically performed, and filled to the brim was razzle dazzle effects, I couldn’t shake a “been there seen that” feeling. This is a knee-jerk thought, but I can’t help but wonder if there is only one “backstage rise to success” story to be told – from Dreamgirls to Jersey Boys, all seem to cycle through the same list – a love of music leads to success leads to excess leads to drama leads to crisis leads to regret. It doesn’t help that all the characters in Ain’t Too Proud are painted with excessively broad strokes, skin deep at best, caricature at worst.
Our guide through this story is Otis Williams, baritone and only surviving member of the “Original Five.” He tells us of arriving in Detroit from Texas as a teenager, getting into mischief and spending time in juvenile detention. Upon release, he vows to “go straight” and, seemingly immediately. is part of a singing group, Otis Williams and the Distants. A bathroom encounter with Motown entrepreneur Berry Gordy leads to a contract and leads to The Temptations.
There are absolutely no surprises after that. Singer David Ruffin, the soloist on the group’s early hits, demands more than the others are willing to give, and personnel begin to turn over like a disappointed mother in her grave. Soon, addiction, illness, age, ego, politics, and a changing musical ethos lead to all the expected crises and conflicts. And yet, this time, the group itself, the “idea” of The Temptations survives to this day. Their latest album, “Temptations 60,” was released this year.
I do like how the familiar songs are used to illuminate moments in their careers and lives, and the world they are navigating. For example, the classic “I Wish It Would Rain” is used to underscore the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, giving it an unexpected emotional resonance. The same is true of all their hits.
And they are all here – “My Girl,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “Just My Imagination,” “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” “Get Ready,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” and much much more. All the expected visual cues are here – the tightly choreographed moves, the dapper suits and synchronized colors, the changing hair styles, all make for a delightful voyage through my teenage years,
And, yet, for all its dedication to detail and its efforts to include ALL the hits, the book tends to give the story and the characters short shrift. This is a long and shallow journey – the show is about three hours long but only about twenty minutes deep. When characters fail and fade, there is no emotional connection, because we’ve only seen them at their worst, seeing their excesses and successes, no moments of quiet or reflection or connection. We don’t know why they are friends (or even IF they are friends), what they do backstage or on the tour bus (drugs and alcohol aside). Sometimes we barely know their names. When Otis’ son dies in a freak workplace accident, we can’t really empathize because we’ve barely met him, Otis’ wife even less.
Even Otis Williams is a bit of a cipher -- we see him as a “running wild” teenager, but we do not see what got him started in music, why music means so much to him. We see him being the “boss” of the changing roster of Temptations, but not how (or why) he selects replacement artists.
In other words, the show’s title is a bit of a misnomer – we see the Temptations’ times, but not much of their lives away from the stage. It’s as if performing is all we need to know about them.
But this is a “Jukebox Musical,” meaning it is really about the music. As far as the show’s creators are concerned, that’s all we need to know. And, I suppose, that’s fine. The actors are basically interchangeable except for their vocal ranges, as long as they hit those harmonies and synchronize those steps.
And, as a long-time fan of The Temptations, that’s really all I need despite my dramaturgical quibbles. For fans of the Temptations, Ain’t Too Proud is an energetic and welcome wallow in the Motown sound that, truth to tell, defined our adolescence. And I’m not too proud to admit that sometimes, I just have to let my joys put my judgmental excesses in a dark corner where they can wither and die.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #Ain’tTooProud #BroadwayInAtlanta)