By Dale King
If thoughts of Detroit are rattling around in your mind, it probably means you’re pondering one of two things — cars or music.
And if you’re hankering for some of the best rhythm and blues tunes on the planet, your destination should be the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, where the jukebox musical, Ain’t Too Proud — the captivating, but often emotional, harsh, even troublesome tale of the ultimately successful singing group, The Temptations — is playing through the weekend.
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations is a 2018 jukebox musical based on a book by Dominique Morisseau, with melodies and lyrics crafted by The Temptations themselves — an ensemble that changed personnel and melodic styles over a 62-year period. There have been 27 different members of The Temptations during its lengthy tenure.
On opening night Wednesday, the Kravis pulled in a virtually packed house, despite dire weather reports. The show obviously pleased the audience who rewarded the cast with a long and loud standing ovation.
Otis Williams (portrayed exceptionally by Michael Andreaus), the last surviving original member of the assemblage — narrates the musically enhanced drama of how the R&B collective made its leap from the streets of Motor City to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Director Des McAnuff has pulled together a corps of exceptional vocalists and dancers to deliver the production package on a technically boosted stage. And with McAnuff at the helm and an outstanding tech crew in and around the hall, the production is stunning.
The Temptations have had a varied, sometimes conflicted and diverse career, creating a mix of songs that covers an assortment of genres. Bringing in slick, syncopated choreography and mixing it with varied vocal harmonies, the Temptations redefined a generation of R&B music and ended up placing 42 songs in the Top 10 — with 14 reaching No 1.
The Temptations were formed in 1961, with performers joining forces from a couple of different groups. They signed with Motown Records, but it took a few years for them to gain steam. The Temptations scored their first major hit in 1965 with a romantic tune, Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl,” which rose to No. 1 on the pop and R&B charts.
Soon, the group was banging out big hits – from “My Girl,” the first of a series of ballads, to the funkier, more psychedelic sounds of the late’ ‘60s, “Cloud Nine,” which earned Motown its first Grammy, and “Ball of Confusion,” a funky fabrication about world chaos.
For die-hard Temptations fans, Ain’t Too Proud is a buffet of deliciously musical treats. But with a runtime of two hours and 30 minutes along with a 15-minute intermission, the show — which includes more than two dozen full and partial songs — is a shade long.
Don’t get me wrong. The show features terrific singers, great choreography, dynamic scenic and projection design and a great rhythm and blues band that synchronizes perfectly with the performers. Action generally prevails.
The show intersperses information about The Temptations’ history between musical performances. Act I emphasizes the Tempts’ success while stressing that internal strife is rampant and personal behaviors stray to alcohol, drugs and womanizing. The group suffers through some individual rivalries and suffers the pain of civil rights struggles, particularly in their hometown of Detroit.
Act II — a kinder, gentler, shorter and more soothing segment — arrives to rescue the slightly weary audience from the densely packed opening act.
Among those who bring enviable talents to the Kravis Center cast are Jalen Harris, who portrays Temptations top-notch vocalist Eddie Kendricks. Famed Temptations singer David Ruffin — vocal master and group bad boy — is played with style by Elijah Ahmed Lewis, a multi-award-winning Broadway, TV and film star. But the musical nod for the night goes to Harrell Holmes Jr. as Melvin Franklin, whose deep, deep bass is truly formidable.
Of course, you need a master terpsichorean to make the vocals jibe with the footwork that was specifically created for The Temptations. Tony Award-winner Sergio Trujillo is the incredible choreographer who makes the dance steps work. The blast of lively energy that marks the unification of the original group under their signature song “My Girl” and the authentic struggles revealed in their interactions during the emotionally charged “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” make for a poignant and entertaining evening of intelligent, emotional theater.
The finale — accomplished with vocal, dance and special effects acumen — is well-executed, worthy of note and is one heck of a fantastic way to say thanks to one of the greatest musical groups of all time.
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations is playing through Sunday at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. For tickets and information, call 561-832-7469 or visit KravisCenter.org.