At the Imperial Theatre for 2 and 1/2 hours, there are musical numbers and dance moves that will so send you into the realms of the fabulous, I doubt you will want to come down to earth. The magic, history, poignance and joy displayed by the production company creatives of Ain’t Too Proud, are bar none. The show is one of the best on Broadway.
Special accolades go to Des McAnuff for his seminal direction and staging and Sergio Trujillo for choreography. But the rising glory must land on the actors and ensemble responsible for the breathtaking portrayals of the “Classic 5 Temptations,” Derrick Baskin (as Otis Williams) James Harkness (as Paul Williams) Jawan M. Jackson (as Melvin Franklin) Jeremy Pope (as Eddie Kendricks) and Ephraim Sykes (as David Ruffin), not the least of which include those portraying the additional Temps. These are just fantastic, the “stuff that dreams are made of.”
By the conclusion of Ain’t Too Proud, I felt like I had spent time with loving family who passed, but for a moment were returned to me by an act of grace so I might delight in the music of a pivotal time in the tumultuous 1960s. Brought back to life by the astute genius and prodigious talents of the performers, one more uniquely magnificent than the other, each manifested the perfection of golden-voices and harmonies synced to fluid gestures.
The story of The Temptations in Ain’t Too Proud (book by Dominique Morisseau based on the The Temptations by Otis Williams with Patricia Romanowski) is crucial to understanding our country’s vitality in progress through grinding work and sacrifice. And it is a reminder of how the human spirit can strive in the face of prejudice and discrimination to overcome and burgeon into greatness. The production highlights the personal sacrifice it took to be world renown, as Otis (Derrick Baskin) reveals very poignantly at the conclusion what happened in his life and in the lives of each of the “Classic 5.” And it is a story of possibilities, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Most importantly, Ain’t Too Proud is the chronicle of two individuals who united in a vision to transform The Elgins into The Temptations and ultimately crossover artists who would be play in London and other cities off US shores. Founder/organizer/creative genius in his own right, Otis Williams was the “engine who could.” He is still going strong as the last of the “Classic 5.” He is still creating and has established the 24th iteration of The Temptations whose name he owns. The other individual is Berry Gordy. He is the maverick, genius promoter, visionary of the Motown label who had more hits and strategies up his sleeve than Houdini (one of them was songwriter Smokey Robinson of The Miracles) coupled with an acute sense of the historical and cultural timing to create his own brand of
When Williams and Gordy met in the men’s room of a place where Gordy was scouting talent, Williams introduced himself and lightening struck. R & B, and the future of soul was indelibly made and both men’s destiny as well as the destiny of black people in our nation was shaped forever by these two future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers: Gordy in 1988, Williams in 1989 as a Temptation.
Motivated by money and the example of Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Gordy understood that one way to best racism was through music. He helped to make those who sported the Motown label (The Supremes, The Miracles, The Temptations, The Commodores, Marvin Gaye, and so many more) ambassadors of good will. This was during a time when there was little good will to be had because of racial divisions and bigotry especially from those who embraced generational hatreds fomented by the Southern planter class. Jim Crow had even filtered to the North with redlining neighborhoods separating communities into wholly white or wholly black.
The planter class who lost their lucrative “peculiar institution” along with their place of gentrified greatness after the Civil War, whipped up the discriminatory sentiments of economically impoverished or working class whites. These wealthy brainwashed whites to believe they shared a common heritage in being “white.” The irony was, none of the wealthy ever sat down to eat with the economically challenged whites or associated with them in the same society or culture. They were kept far away in the “low rent districts” on the other side of the railroad tracks near the town dumps or sewage treatment plants.
When Gordy has the Temptations tour parts of the South and their bus is shot at and nearly stopped (if it had been they wouldn’t have made it to the next day) we see the extent of the Jim Crow hatreds. These echoes from the past unfortunately have currency for us today. The show reminds us that we have progressed, but must remain steadfast with what has been accomplished, which certainly The Temptations and Berry Gordy’s incredible vision helped to achieve.
Ain’t Too Proud’s book by Dominique Morrisseau is based on the book The Temptations by Otis Williams with Patricia Romanowski. The show features the music and lyrics from “the legendary Motown Catalog.” These elements plus the grist and hard work to bring them together in one ineffable, miraculous meld make this a sensational production. As I walked out after the standing ovations, I saw folks still sitting in the audience either chatting excitedly or just staring off in delighted appreciation in awe at what they had just experienced.
What makes this such a sterling production is that the incredible performances of the “Classic 5” (Baskin, Harkness, Jackson, Pope, Sykes) are brought to life singing favorites in the chronological order of their growth and evolution. Otis Williams (Baskin) narrates this development, and we follow him as he leads us through the arc of their glory to become the #1 stars of the Motown label. The songs are recognizable. Some favorites include “Baby Love,” “Ball of Confusion” “For Once in My Life,” “Get Ready,” “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” “My Girl.” As Otis (Baskin is just gobsmacking as he weaves the threads through to the present day) relays each event in their various lives, we see the parallels with the appropriate songs.
So special is this song selection that pegs the songs to the emotional resonance of the group’s life situations! When we hear the backstory or see the dynamic of their personal relationships, the songs vibrate with energy and transcendence. This is powerfully effected with “Cloud Nine,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” and “War.”
Another thrilling element of the production is its retrospective of the 1960s, and how through the reflection of music, our culture and history changed forever. Music and transformation was mirrored during the 1960s movements, The Civil Rights and Peace Movements, as well as the Cultural and Sexual/Gender Revolution. The songs parallel, symbolize and manifest that time. Their lyrics and beauty, however, are for all time.
The director Des McAnuff folds in The Temptations’ viewpoints about Detroit’s unrest, Martin Luther King’s assassination and the rise of drugs which were flooding college campuses and spreading like a flood in all parts of the music scene. The film clips and projections of the Detroit riots, the marches, the King Jr. assassination are integral to the story of the Temptations.
Primarily, the show is a loving encomium for the “Classic 5” Temptations who were the founders of the original chart-busting group. It is also a reveal about how the genius of Motown and the transcendent talents of these five prodigiously hard-working performers shaped cultural attitudes against racism and prejudice at a time when the South was still lynching blacks, and when assassinations of Malcolm X, the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. rocked the nation, fomenting profound sadness and hopelessness.
Through all of it, is the ineffable sound of this group and its add-ins as some left and others came back. After a decade out on their own, Kendricks (Pope) and Ruffin (Sykes) returned to perform. All the while The Temptations soared to Top 100 charts and even bested The Supremes’ position at Motown. Their music was the golden thread that transformed national attitudes toward race and reinforced that as citizens we can be decent. The Temptations drew opposing sides away from polar extremes. They encouraged that the shared love of R & B can take us beyond division and hatred.
Special kudos go to Orchestrations by Harold Wheeler and Music Direction and Arrangements by Kenny Seymour. Recognition also goes to Robert Brill (Scenic Design) Paul Tazewell (Costume Design) Howell Binkley (Lighting Design) Steve Canyon Kennedy (Sound Design) Peter Nigrini (Projection Design) and other creatives whose collaborations make the production a smash hit out of the park.
Ain’t Too Proud is at The Imperial Theatre (249 West 45th Street). This must-see show runs with one intermission. For tickets go to their website by CLICKING HERE.