Review ‘Ain’t Too Proud’ at the Eccles

At the moment, “The Temptations” strutted, dipped, rocked and swaggered onto the stage at the Eccles Theater, a collective gasp of wild anticipation rose from the audience. The night began, and what a night it promised to be. Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations opened Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, to a sold-out crowd. 

Punctuated by their now-classic repertoire of songs, the backstory of the Temptations spans their climb to fame from their hardscrabble days in industrial Detroit to the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and beyond.

The propulsive rhythm and fiery energy signaled a production, unlike other jukebox musicals of the decade. The show is a musical journey based on the memoirs of Otis Williams’ rendering of The Temptations’ history. The odyssey, often rife with drama, intrigue and betrayal, is a musical passage to Williams’ view of the complex history of the Temptations in a rapidly shifting social and political landscape.

Ain’t Too Proud, under the direction of Des McAnuff, and featuring Sergio Trujillo’s choreography that mixes trademark Temptations’ dance moves with rhythm and style, seamlessly weaves the music into Williams’ recollections. The music and movements span the growing cultural divide of the ’60s and give the audience a glimpse into The Temptations’ journey from their earliest days in Detroit as one of Barry Gordy’s most highly successful R&B groups. Under Gordy’s direction, with the addition of David Ruffin and largely with the talents of songwriter-producers Smokey Robinson and Norman Whitfield, the Temptations turned out a string of romantic hits, beginning with “The Way You Do the Things You Do”  and their signature “My Girl.”

Ain’t Too Proud is a feast of music and movement. Created by Obie Award-winning playwright Domonique Morriseau, the story moves through the major stages of Williams’ memoir—the gathering of the legends and their rapid rise to stardom; the challenges of keeping them together against adversaries both within and outside the group; and the final tragic deaths of each member of the original Temptations—except for Williams, himself. 

Motown birthed the Temptations and its patriarch Barry Gordy glories in their fame, even as he exercises authoritarian control over Motown’s stable of artists, underscored when he replaces Robinson with a hit-making, cross-over team of songwriters more closely aligned with Gordy’s quest for power and profits.

But Ain’t Too Proud is also the tale of the internal struggles the group faced. David Ruffin, the group’s lead singer, is an intense, passionate artist who degenerates into a world of drugs, leaving in shreds his relationship with Motown’s Tammi Terrell. Despite his prodigious talent, he’s told to leave the group.

Fame is Williams’ full-time mistress. And his wife Josephine languishes from his part-time commitment to her, leaving her to raise their son Otis LaMonte Williams alone.  When tragedy strikes the family with the accidental death of 23-year-old Lamont, Williams struggles to sing his mournful regret that on his way to stardom, he left his son behind.

Even as The Temptations’ success grows, Gordy’s obvious favoritism of the super-star Supremes irks Williams. Supremes, in stunning sequined costumes of the times, sweep onto the stage in a spirited and passionate reimagining of their stunning presence in the Motown oeuvre

Just as history breathes life into music, the music reflects the energy of the times.

And I would be remiss to not mention Robert Brill’s dramatic, mostly monochromatic projection designs.  Abstract images move across the stage’s backdrop, with the alternating scenes melding perfectly into the advancing story.  The black and white photographs of the civil rights movement, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and finally the war in Vietnam, perfectly reflected the shifting cultural and political dynamics of America.

With the growth of the civil rights movement and the rising tide against the war in Vietnam, the Temptations—as a group—defy Barry Gordy’s bar on “Black political” activism, including actively opposing segregation and reclaiming their protest song “War,” which Gordy earlier seizes from the Temptations’ playbook and gives to Edwin Shaw.

Drugs, sex and rhythm and blues take their toll, and with the ravages of time, each of the four Temptations falls into illness, suicide and despair.  The only living original Temptation is Otis Williams, of course. Ain’t Too Proud is a festival of music and story, exuberance and tragedy writ large.  As the performance ends,  the music reaches a crescendo.  The Temptations swing into the psychedelic funk of “Papa is a Rolling Stone.” Joined by the ensemble cast, the beat’s power and the performers’ exuberance infuse the theatergoers with irrepressible joy. The audience rises in a standing ovation, applauding to the beat of the music, while muscle memory toe-taps out the finale in a psychedelic rhythm. 

Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations continues through January 15. Leave your winter boots and umbrella at home; Eccles theater is the hottest scene in town.

See Linda Hunt’s preview of Ain’t Too Proud here and all of her theater coverage here.

Linda Hunt
Linda Hunt
Linda Hunt, an artist and arts activist, is the former Executive Director of the Foothill Cultural District, a consortium of Salt Lake City’s arts and culture organizations, including the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, the Natural History Museum of Utah and Hogle Zoo, among others. Prior to returning to her roots in Utah, she was the Associate Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California where, according to her FBI file, she entered the pantheon of trouble-makers. Hunt is currently completing research for her forthcoming book, “Rappers Under the Gun: The U. S. Government’s War on Hip Hop.”

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