Review: Dancing with Joy at Broadway in Chicago’s Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations

That drumbeat hits and then you hear a voice like no other—“I know you wanna leave me but I refuse to let you go!” The Temptations were like no other sound that had come out of the Motor City and it hits my soul just like it did back in the day. This is the music that spoke to the heart of America with optimism and songs of love. This music was also the soundtrack through some of the darkest days in the 20th century. Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations is directed by Tony Award winner Des McAnuff and written by Dominique Morisseau, based on the memoir by the last original Temptation, Otis Williams. Choreography is by Sergio
Trujillo and music is from the Motown catalog. This is the real deal with all of the stories of how it went down.

Marcus Paul James as Otis Williams narrates the story of the origins of the group from their days in Detroit. Back then you either sang or were in a gang, according to Williams. Young men sang on the street corners and in talent shows in the doowop style. The group began as Otis Williams and Paul Williams (James T. Lane) who were good friends and they found Melvin Franklin (Harrel Holmes Jr.), Eddie Kendricks (Jalen Harris), and Al Bryant (Brett Michael Lockley). The group muddled through without much distinction until they heard David Ruffin (Elijah Ahmad Lewis) singing one of his brother Jimmy Ruffin’s songs, and knew that he was the missing ingredient. They went beyond the lush horn and string arrangements of groups like the Flamingos or the bubbly music of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. This music was as original as a fingerprint with a perfect blend of voices with suave dance moves also not seen before.Des

Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Jalen Harris, Marcus Paul James, Harrel Homes Jr., and James T. Lane. Photo by Emilio Madrid.

Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations is beyond a regular jukebox musical. The Temptations filled the jukebox with hits that fulfilled the dreams of impresario Berry Gordy (Michael Andreaus) to cross over and make Motown the sound to be copied and imitated by a legion of popular and rock musicians. This show gives all of the behind-the-scenes stories and tragedies that were widely known in the Black community if you read Ebony or Jet magazine. Gordy kept it “in the family” and created an image machine where the women were taught how to dress, walk, and comport themselves and the men were always clean-shaven with tailored suits and perfect manners.

From the moment they hit the stage and launch into The Way You Do the Things You Do, you will be transported back to a time when that song was played on WVON or whatever the station was at the end of the dial in your town. This mega-talented cast has the looks, the sound, and the moves that will make you want to dance. Here are the songs that kids used to imitate the dance moves and leave the arm of the record player off so that it would play on repeat (some of you may have to look that one up). Elijah Ahmad Lewis brings David Ruffin to life with a to the rafters voice that—like Ruffin’s—sounds like it came from the church, and it is the same for Jalen Harris who brings Eddie Kendricks’s sweet as honey falsetto to glorious life. There are plenty of comic moments in the show. The banter is easy with a few salty words as exclamation points. Dennis Edwards (Harris Matthew) replaces David Ruffin and the story of Papa Was a Rolling Stone is a moment of perfect comic timing. Matthew is spot on Dennis Edwards, who was known for being quite the man-diva.

Harrel Holmes Jr., Jalen Harris, Harris Matthew, Marcus Paul James, and James T. Lane. Photo by Emilio Madrid.

As with any supernova, the demons of addiction, abuse, and ego are shown in the musical but so is the horrific racism the group faced when touring the South and their bus is shot at. These are poignant moments when the group wanted to break out of the mold and sing about what the nation was going through.

I have two quibbles with this show. One is that history is rearranged, claiming erroneously that riots exploded in the Black neighborhoods of America before Dr. King was assassinated in April 1968. I found it to be a clumsy transition for dramatic effect when we know that all of the truth about that era should be told correctly. I clearly remember the “Holy Week Uprisings” in 1968 after Dr. King was slain. The other is that the Supremes (played perfectly and in fine voice by Traci Elaine Lee, Deri’Andra Tucker, and Shayla Brielle G) would never have done that much booty shaking. Berry Gordy had them as mannequin-like as the Lennon Sisters on The Lawrence Welk Show.

The Motown performers had to be White-people palatable and keep all of the soul in their voices. Their movements were coquettish and subtle. The men did all of the sexy moves. It felt like it was done for today’s audiences born later or new to Motown—which I find hard to believe. The Temptations are played on a variety of radio channels and streaming to this day. Still, I really loved this show and went home and listened to the music all over again.

Traci Elaine Lee, Deri’Andra Tucker, and Shayla Brielle G. Photo by Emilio Madrid.

The classic Motown music is an American soundtrack that you probably hold close and sweet in your memories. I highly recommend you check it out during the Chicago run. Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations runs for 2.5 hours with one intermission through June 5 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St. Tickets are $29.50-$116. Covid protocols are in place and you must wear a mask over your nose and mouth when you are in the theater. They were not checking vaccine cards or IDs when I went but take them anyway. The theater is a balm for the soul in these times. Keep it live and running.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.