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Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations

(i/)"Singing going to be my salvation," Otis Williams, originator of The Temptations singing group.
James Harkness, Jeremy Pope, Derrick Baskin, and Ephraim Sykes (photo by Doug Hamilton)

Get ready, rock and roll fans, here comes Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, the latest jukebox musical, now playing at the Kennedy Center. Like its predecessors


and most notably Jersey Boys, Ain't Too Proud follows a formula: how the group got started, its ascent to the top of the charts and popularity, the challenges brought about by fame and fortune, and the demise of some of its creators. And it works.

The story begins with two boys from the South, Otis and Paul Williams, looking for work in Detroit's auto industry and singing on the side. Otis learned a hard lesson while serving a six-month jail sentence and vowed to turn his life around which he did. A shot-gun marriage and fatherhood made him think he understood responsibility but building his singing group's reputation and success took priority.

So it was with the other original Temps, as they came to be knownc— Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin. Their lucky break came when, in the early '60' when the Cadillacs as they were then known, performed in a Detroit dive.

Barry Gordy — the brilliant maker of the Motown sound that included the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder and more — was in the audience. Under his and Smokey Robinson's tutelage they were on their way.

Nostalgic for some and a welcome surprise to a young audience, the hit songs, all thirty-one of them, in Ain't Too Proud, ain't nothing but terrific: "Baby Love," "For Once In My Life," "Get Ready," "I'm Gonna Love You," "The Way You Do The Things You Do," "What Becomes the Brokenhearted," to name just a few.

Success was not immediate but once the Temps hit the big time, there was no looking back. "Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are)" and "Don't Look Back" were telling songs. The meteoric rise and life on the road took its toll, especially during the civil rights era when the group encountered hostility while touring the South.

By 1968, the country and its music turned violent and harsh causing dissention in the group. Martin Luther King's death was a turning point. Otis's faction wanted to hold on to the sweet sounds of soul/R&B that made them famous but the others looked to the angry rhetoric of the civil rights movement. They tried both for a while but it is their mellow sound that lives on.

Ain't Too Proud tells this story well thanks to Dominique Morisseu's script, which in turn is based on Otis Williams's biography. Robert Brill's minimal scenery which includes black and white rear screens, a turntable and a strip of moving walkway and Howell Brinkley's lighting provide an unobtrusive backdrop. Paul Tazewell's costumes take the boys from scruffy duds to well-fitted jackets that sparkle in the spotlight.

The Temps, always known for their harmonious voices and precisely syncopated movement (the Rockettes and North Korean army could learn from them) are displayed brilliantly under Des McAnuff's direction (his many credits include Jersey Boys) and courtesy of Sergio Trujillo's choreography (he too was one of the creators of Jersey Boys.) The performances are nothing short of extraordinary. The dancing, particularly, is breathtaking for its speed and articulation.

Yes, they are all in tune with one another but in spite of the uniformity, Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin, the group's renegade is the best dancer of this genre I have ever seen. An Alvin Ailey graduate, he has spaghetti-like legs when warranted, an ability to slide across the floor on his knees and do the splits. He can throw a mike from one hand to another, beat Michael Jackson's iconic moves and outshine every other singer/dancer on stage. That is not to diminish the performances of Derrick Baskin as Otis Williams, James Harkness as Paul Williams, Jawan M. Jackson (whose basso profondo is lower than low) as Melvin Franklin, and Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendricks. They too were superb.

If last night's Kennedy Center's audience is any indication, a very very good time was had by all -- clapping to the music, hooting at the more audacious moves. They seemed reluctant to leave the theatere after the last bow in order to hold on to every last memory of what preceded. Are you going to love "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me?" You bet!

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Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations
Book by Dominique Morisseau
Music and Lyrics from The Legendary Motown Catalog
Orchestrations by Harold Wheeler
Music Direction and Arrangements by Kenny Seymour
Choreography by Sergio Trujillo
Directed by Des McAnuff
Starring Derrick Baskin, James Harkness, Jawan M. Jackson, Jeremy Pope, Ephraim Sykes, Jarvis B. Manning Jr., Taylor Symone Jackson, Jahi Kearse, Christian thompson, Candice Marie Woods, Rashidra Scott, Nasia Thomas, Joshua Morgan, Caliaf St. Aubyn, E. Clayton Cornelious, Shawn Bowers, Esther Antoine, Rodney Earl Jackson Jr., and Curtis Wiley.
Designers: Robert Brill, scenery. Paul Tazewell, costumes. Howell Binkley, lighting. Steve Canyon Kennedy, sound. Peter Nigrini, projection.
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes including one 15-minute intermission. Kennedy Center,; June 19 to July 22, 2018. Reviewed by Susan Davidson at June 28, 2018 performance.

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