The cost of legacy

‘Ain’t Too Proud’ is the rare jukebox musical that is as iconic as the music it’s based on

Credit: Emilio Madrid

While I knew The Temptations’ music, their turbulent past was unknown to me. In Ain’t Too Proud, a musical about the legendary group, Otis Williams, the group’s leader, makes a joke early on that sometimes the ‘temp’ in The Temptations “stands for temporary.” But the touring production of Ain’t Too Proud at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) argues that “the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.”

Ain’t Too Proud is a jukebox musical with music and lyrics by The Temptations and a script by Dominique Morisseau. The fast-paced musical traces The Temptations’ extraordinary journey from the streets of Detroit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Ain’t Too Proud opened in New York in 2019 and was nominated for 12 Tony Awards, winning Best Choreography. 

Watch as Temptations’ foundational members, Williams (Marcus Paul James), Melvin Franklin (Harrell Holmes Jr.), Eddie Kendricks (Jalen Harris), Paul Williams (James T. Lane) and David Ruffin (Elijah Ahmad Lewis), rose through the music industry together, and how personal conflicts threatened to tear the group apart as the United States fell into civil unrest. 

This exhilarating story of brotherhood and betrayal is set to the rhythm of the group’s classic hits. 

Considering the band’s superstar status, I was taken aback by how personal the musical was. The musical touches on domestic violence, heavy drug use, infidelity, alcoholism, statutory rape, suicide, and Williams’ neglect of his child. 

James brings gravitas to his portrayal of Otis Williams; he is a calm storyteller who guides you on The Temptation’s rise to the top. In contrast, Lewis’ performance as David Ruffin is unhinged but dynamic. Lewis’ character does some awful things, but you won’t be able to look away from his magnetic performance. The audience is enraptured by the intense back and forth between Ruffian and Williams as the two vie for control of the group. 

Paul Williams, played by Lane, makes an interesting foil to Jalen Harris’ Eddie Kendricks, and the pair share an exciting introduction number. Holmes Jr. rounds the group out nicely as Melvin Franklin with his booming bass and utter sincerity. Sergio Trujillo choreographed the ensemble cast, which includes actors portraying a variety of characters. Paul Tazewell, the Tony-award winning costume designer for his work on Hamilton, designed their stylish costumes. 

The set included some questionable elements. While Robert Brill’s physical set pieces, such as the Motown office and the bathroom set, work well, the play’s reliance on Peter Nigrini’s projection design is frustrating. Some of the projections, such as the cities and towns where the group will be performing or a news sequence, are helpful. However, because of the sheer volume of projections and the amount of stage space they take up, the actors are frequently dwarfed by images, and attention is diverted from the story. 

Williams acknowledges that “the only thing that really lives forever is the music.” While that may be true, the story behind The Temptations’ music is just as worthy of recognition. If you can catch the musical while it’s in town, you’re sure to walk away with a new appreciation of the group’s complicated legacy. 

ON STAGE: Ain’t Too Proud. Various times, Oct. 25, through Nov. 6; Buell Theatre, 1350 Curtis St., Denver. Tickets here.

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