A jukebox musical simultaneously bears a unique burden and boasts a special advantage: Unlike other musicals, wherein your first time seeing it often means your first time hearing the songs in it, a jukebox musical presents songs you’ve likely heard many times before. The result — especially if you’re going in as a fan of those songs — can be a disappointing journey down a distorted memory lane, or it can be a triumph of balancing tribute with storytelling.
I attended Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations as someone who’s always passively admired the legendary Detroit-founded vocal group — familiar with most of the singles you might expect someone born after their most popular songs to know. My theater-going companion, however, brought along an encyclopedic knowledge of The Temptations and Motown at large. We both left in awe of this thorough yet never tedious memoir of one of the greatest R&B groups (if not the greatest) in history.
Jalen Harris and the National Touring Company of Ain’t Too Proud. Credit © 2021 Emilio Madrid.
With a show like this, in which umpteen very real people with distinct, easily verified sounds and looks are being portrayed, you have to, at least to some extent, leave your expectations for perfect impersonations at the door. And when you do, you’ll be rewarded with enough talent to make you forget that the actors bear very little resemblance to their characters physically and often vocally. When the show opens, it’s almost immediately apparent that Jalen Harris, who plays The Temptations’ falsetto-frequenting tenor Eddie Kendricks, has more contemporary influences — I sensed a bit of 1980s Michael Jackson in the way he moves. In fact, with the exception of the endlessly endearing Harrell Holmes Jr., who plays bass Melvin Franklin, nearly every featured actor was given the liberty to sing impressively elaborate vocal runs never sung by their real-life counterparts and dance in a sharpened way that might have you questioning the archival footage you’ve seen of the group’s signature moves.
It doesn’t matter. It simply doesn’t matter.
National Touring Company of Ain’t Too Proud. Credit © 2021 Emilio Madrid.
The individual talent, the harmonies, the confident choreography — if it’s not a perfectly accurate tribute, it’s an inadvertent tribute to how The Temptations impacted a long line of performers who now bring decades of accumulated, well-edited, elevated Motown influence to the stage today.
As with so many biographical jukebox musicals about musicians, Ain’t Too Proud utilizes the group’s catalog in two ways: sometimes to simply sing a familiar song in the context of a performance or to serve as a relevant underscore to pivotal moments. (In fact, my one complaint — and I call it that very loosely — was the occasional and inexplicable use of other artists’ songs to help tell the story, like Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” and The Isley Brothers’ “Shout.”) In one of the most clever examples of song-as-storytelling-device, the abusive, unreliable, and justifiably conceited David Ruffin (played by the outstanding Elijah Ahmad Lewis) is kicked out of the group as he sings the pleading lyrics of “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)” — but before the song is through, he’s ousted by replacement frontman Dennis Edwards (played by fantastic vocal match Dwayne P. Mitchell), who amusingly slides into place in one of the many unexpected instances of masterfully subtle physical comedy throughout the show.
(L – R)- Harrell Holmes Jr., Jalen Harris, Harris Matthew, Marcus Paul James, James T. Lane from the National Touring Company of Ain’t Too Proud. Credit © 2021 Emilio Madrid.
Humor is expertly utilized along the way, usually by narrator and Temptations founder Otis Williams (portrayed with tenderness and charismatic wisdom by Michael Andreaus), to soften the edges of some of the more serious situations the group’s members find themselves in. However, the show also solemnly honors the moments and people it should, addressing racism, addiction, illness, abuse, and tragic deaths without losing the joyous momentum established early on.
Michael Andreaus Headshot