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The hit musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations (based on singer Otis Williams’s autobiographical book Temptations), now landing in Philly for the first time, covers the rise of the Motown boy band, the members’ difficulties with fame, and their relationships from Williams’s perspective. It’s a sleek, informative, entertaining production with a book by playwright Dominique Morrisseau. She, director Des McAnuff, and choreographer Sergio Trujillo did a great job adapting Williams’s 268-page book to stage while infusing the show with humor through choreography, a literal mic-drop moment, and an extended yo mama joke.
Great staging and choreography
While pulling from the Motown catalog, the show’s unique staging heightens the standout performances. The dancing Temptations become a seamless transition between scenes and an all-knowing Greek chorus. Robert Brill’s set and Howell Binkley’s simple but effective lights showcase a clean stage, and projection designer Peter Nigrini takes us to Detroit’s streets, steel fences, prisons, and rainswept funerals and adds actual Detroit Free Press headlines during a Civil Rights scene.
Trujillo, associate choreographer Edgar Godineaux, and dance captains Nazarria Workman and Treston Henderson show a clear understanding of 1960s music-group moves. They capture the performers’ individual styles while maintaining group cohesion (in the deceptively simple opener, more than 15 performers rotate as a group from front to back while maintaining alignment). It was truly Beyoncé-worthy, with choreography involving suit jackets, urinals, and microphones.
The direction and choreography team clearly collaborated on the innovative stage constructions, including staggered stage pictures, in-place stage running, and circular chase sequences. My favorite tableaux included a multi-level floor freebase scene despite the awkward smoke robot.
A standout cast
Each male performer appears to be a comfortable stage veteran, but Jalen Harris (as the firebrand Eddie Kendricks) deserves accolades shouted from the rooftop, the mountaintop, and the bus stop. He gives 300 percent in performance, vocals, and emotional vulnerability, voicing a distinctive vintage babyish quality. He brings lightning-quick leg motion, sharp jacket flips, and incredibly stylized high kicks, even from the backline. But he might need to pace himself: by the show’s mid-point at the Thursday, January 4 performance, his falsetto solos occasionally lost vocal power for a couple lines.
Elijah Ahmad Lewis as soloist David Ruffin is a slow-burn character. Although his introductory vocals left me cold, by the time his character exits the Temptations, his bravado, ego, gospel rasp vocals, and charisma are flowing. He truly hits it vocally and emotionally. And yes, the Ruffin\Kendricks dance duo remains a solid-gold highlight.
Shout-out to Felander’s shadow-dance skills while playing Williams’s son, Lamont. Kudos to Harrell Holmes Jr.’s deep-bass vocals as Melvin Franklin. Swing AJ Lockhart comedically brings down the house as Smokey Robinson. Dwayne Mitchell’s dance shimmers in the role of Dennis Edwards. And I love that the cast includes Broadway and Motown veterans like Holmes and E. Clayton Cornelious as Paul Williams.
An unreliable narrator?
It’s clear that Ain’t Too Proud is not only inspired by Williams’s viewpoint but continues to center it; after all, he’s the executive producer alongside real-life former manager Shelly Berger. The script portrays them as the only levelheaded characters who are consistently shocked (shocked, I say!) when the bandmates rally against their underpaid status quo. It’s already difficult to condense decades of life and top-10 hits into one two-and-half-hour show, but there’s also the balance of the overtly idealized narrator. While Morrisseau’s book spotlights the struggles of the other Temptations members with domestic abuse, drugs, and failing health, Williams (the charismatic Michael Andreaus) is usually warmly portrayed as beleaguered teammate or reluctant absentee father.
Williams’s real-life legacy is more complicated. He famously asked his one-time fiancée, the Patti LaBelle, to quit her singing career and become his stay-at-home wife. The show omits this, as well as exactly how underage Josephine Rogers was when Williams met her (especially considering Ruffin later dated a fan he met when she was 14). In the show, Rogers cruelly moves on from their marriage, but in actuality, she remained single for the rest of her life, while Williams remarried twice.
The show might bring in some of the sexist naivete I caught in the autobiography’s first chapter. For instance, Williams declares that his teenage mother must’ve had a “hot, passionate” affair with his 30-something father, who was also his church deacon. He describes another incident in which he and two male friends are caught with a young woman in an abandoned building as “fooling around.” He doesn’t call it rape, but it was significant enough to send him to juvenile hall. Although the show implies Williams went to prison for a gang crime for a significant time, according to his own book, he did two separate weekends at juvenile hall. One for the incident in the abandoned building, and the next time for mugging another young boy.
The script is tight and smooth, but it feels clear that the source material is a male autobiographer working with a male director. There are nuanced men here outside the band, like Barry Gordy, but the women’s roles feel extremely one-dimensional. Two female characters, Mamma Rose and Johnnie Mae, are described by male monologists as “big bads,” but neither seem abrasive, greedy, or mean enough for the description. Motown legend and native Philadelphian Tammi Terrell (who traded her acceptance to the University of Pennsylvania for a music career) was sexually assaulted as a child. Later, James Brown and David Ruffin abused her (the latter allegedly beating her with a motorcycle helmet). Although Ruffin proposed marriage, he was not yet divorced from his separated first wife, Sandra Barnes, with whom he had three children. However, the show smooths domestic abuse incidents into romantic love. In one scene, Terrell is entirely silent during a seemingly romantic interaction with Ruffin. Her death from cancer occurs offstage. Meanwhile, Williams’s ex-wife seems pigeonholed into the exasperated yet understanding co-parent.
Beyond the script, the women principals’ mics sounded too low: Quiana Onrae’l Holmes as Josephine Rogers, Brittny Smith as Mary Wilson, Amber Mariah Talley as Diana Ross, and Shayla Brielle G. as Florence Ballard/Tammi Terrell. Holmes’s mic seemed corrected after the first act, but the others’ remained low, which, to my ears, caused some slight vocal disharmony when they belted out established bangers by the Supremes. But these four women are clearly talented. During the encore, they confidently freestyled and rocked side splits in heels.
A high-octane musical
I loved the show's non-stop humor and subtle behind-the-scenes moments, like learning “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” was the “angriest recording” they ever did. I loved seeing how old-school boy bands aren’t that different from contemporary ones. Lewis’s David Ruffin is clearly a cross between 90s Bobby Brown and today’s Kanye West.
Overall, this is a fun, high-octane jukebox musical: it’s a slick, clean, smooth, and well-choreographed show that fits like a well-used glove. The racially diverse yet mostly middle-aged audience I joined was full. I loved seeing a ton of Black people rock old-school theater fashion. Because we Black people can dress. We were with the cast from the minute Andreaus's Otis Williams demands audience shout-outs, and the show benefits from a Black playwright who includes cultural artifacts like Jet magazine. Because the Temptations and most of their early songwriters were Black, I did wish there were more people of color in the orchestra, including the conductor, but music director Jonathan “Smitti” Smith does have flair. And don't leave before the encore.
What, When, Where
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations. Based on The Temptations by Otis Williams, book by Dominique Morrisseau; directed by Des McAnuff. $22-$131. Through January 21, 2024, at the Academy of Music, 240 S Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelculturalcampus.org.
Kimmel Cultural Campus venues are ADA-compliant. Patrons can purchase wheelchair seating or loose chairs online by calling patron services at (215) 893-1999 or by emailing [email protected]. With advance notice, patron services can provide options for personal care attendants, American Sign Language, Braille tickets and programs, audio descriptions, and other services.
Masks are not required in Kimmel Cultural Campus venues.
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