Most people know Detroit as the Motor City, the birthplace of the automotive industry. However, Detroit is also home to another legacy, one that shaped and changed the world of music in so many ways. I’m talking about Motown Records, founded by the legendary Berry Gordy Jr. in the late 1950s. While the record label relocated out of Detroit, the impact lives on in the Motown Museum, a staple for those visiting the city and those living there. Located right down the street from The Fisher Theater, it felt apropos to see Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations in the city where it all began.
Written by Dominique Morisseau back in 2018, the jukebox musical explores the legacy of the Temptations, from their formation to today. Ain’t Too Proud, directed by Des McAnuff, is based on the novel The Temptations, written by the last living original member of the group, Otis Williams.
Featuring so many recognizable songs from across the Motown catalog, this musical brings the story of the legendary group to life on stage with music most will know and groove along with. While this story is important to those who live in Detroit, is Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations one worth seeing?
[Warning: Spoilers from Ain’t Too Proud are below!]
The Temptations’ humble beginnings and becoming stars
While Ain’t Too Proud sets out to tell the history of The Temptations, it’s told through the eyes of Otis Williams, who serves as narrator of the musical. Beginning long before the formation of the group, the musical starts when Otis (Michael Andreaus) is a young man, raised in Texas but growing up in the streets of Detroit.
Finding himself in a bit of trouble and spending some time in jail, Otis gets out and decides to turn his life around. In doing so, he decides to make a living in the music industry, forming the group Otis Williams and the Siberians! Remember them? No? Well don’t worry, many probably don’t, as the group didn’t last too long.
Otis goes through a few different musical groups, such as El Domingoes and the Distants, before landing at Motown and forming The Temptations. What began with Elbridge “Al” Bryant (Devin Price) and Richard Street (Devin Holloway) who sang in Otis Williams and the Siberians, grew to include Melvin Franklin (Harrell Holmes Jr.), Eddie Kendricks (Jalen Harris), and Paul Williams (E. Clayton Cornelious). The latter of these two had their own group before folding into The Temptations. Together, these five set forth to change their lives and bring happiness through their music.
However, happiness isn’t necessarily at the center of The Temptations, as their rise to fame came with a ton of strife. Friendships were tested and members left the group, coming and going with each growing pain that came along with growing stardom.
The pressure is also felt in many of the singers’ personal lives, with some turning to alcohol or drugs to fill the void. With each loss, The Temptations came back swinging, bringing on new personalities such as David Ruffin (Elijah Ahmad Lewis), who helped to skyrocket the group to new heights.
As Ain’t Too Proud plays out on stage, it doesn’t shy away from the struggles that these men faced. It showcases that with the good parts of fame, there are also a lot of bad. Otis continues the narration for The Temptations, weaving his personal story throughout the highs and lows of the group. And boy, are there some lows.
As the musical progresses through Act 1 into the second one, audience members see more and more of these cracks forming in the members but also in their relationships. It only makes it more difficult with the riots in Detroit and the continued struggle of racism and segregation that people of color dealt with daily back in the 60s.
Throughout it all, Motown wanted The Temptations to remain stoic and unwavering in the face of all the hate, which means not taking a stance. With strong personalities coming into conflict with each other, and the pressure from Berry Gordy (Jeremy Kelsey) adding to the mix, disaster is always imminent.
However, Ain’t Too Proud at its core is about resilience and family, which helps to provide hope despite the pain. As people left, and eventually died, The Temptations brought in new members, with the group still playing with Otis serving as the leader. However, the loss of his friends, who became his family, definitely hit him hard, leaving scars you cannot see. But the legacy of this group and those members no longer with us with continue on and will because The Temptations is bigger than any one man.
The positives and negatives of Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations
I’m a big fan of a jukebox musical, as the songs tend to be ones that most people know. It makes the show easily accessible to theatergoers because they can recognize the music and get into the show a bit deeper. As well, as someone who grew up in Michigan and listening to that Motown sound, I knew many of these songs, although perhaps not some of the names. For these two reasons alone, Ain’t Too Proud was an enjoyable show and I had a lot of fun taking it in.
There were plenty of moments when I was bopping along with songs such as “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone”, “Since I Lost My Baby”, and “Get Ready”. So many Motown s
ongs are upbeat and feel good, reflective of the vibes from which they were written. As well, the upbeat feel was integral to The Temptations, a point that was touched on in Ain’t Too Proud.
The show also provides a deep look at such an iconic group, one that everyone at the show at The Fisher Building in Detroit loved. These are streets and locations we know, stories we’ve heard, and a world many of us have lived in. So the magic was there that night, especially when the real Otis Williams got up on stage to address the crowd. The energy was electric and something I think people chase from live performances.
The singing and acting in the show were superb, with so many of the actors having stand-out moments. That being said, Harrell Holmes Jr., Elijah Ahmad Lewis, and Jalen Harris were the leaders of the pack in every sense. Holmes Jr. impressed with his deep voice and low notes, but also provided a ton of levity to Ain’t Too Proud, which is important for such a heavy story.
Lewis had an energy to him that was out of this world, hitting high notes and jumping around like he owned the stage. From the story itself, Ruffin could capture the crowd in similar ways to Elvis, and Lewis captured that perfectly. Last but not least, Harris’ voice was incredibly unique and his performance as Eddie was one of the best in the entire show.
With so many going right for the performance, there were a few aspects of the show that impacted the overall experience. There were some instances that hairpieces and wigs didn’t look like they were securely attached, coming up at the edges and such. Berry Gordy’s wig was the one that stood out the most, but it wasn’t the only one. There were also a few instances that came off as mistakes, such as when one of the dancers went to do the splits and struggled to get back up.
There were also a few times where some of the mics felt like they weren’t right, and it became difficult to hear what they were saying. I noticed this more so with the performers who played The Supremes than anyone else. That being said, it should be noted that the press show was the first performance in Detroit, so it’s possible that some of the problems worked themselves out later. However, being an avid Broadway Theater person, many of these things struck me as noticeable and caught me off guard initially.
Final thoughts on Ain’t Too Proud
Overall, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations was an enjoyable experience. For just about two and a half hours, I was able to shut off my brain and jump into a story about a beloved Motown classic. It tells a story of fame and heartbreak in every form, with the latter being something everyone can relate to.
For those who aren’t familiar with The Temptations besides their music, Ain’t Too Proud will provide plenty to learn about them. It’s a rich story that is prime for the stage and one you should see when it arrives in a city near you.
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations is currently touring North America. Let us know on social media @Mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord if you plan on checking this musical out.