Timeless hits shine in ‘Ain’t Too Proud’ at the Fox

From left, Marcus Paul James, Jalen Harris, Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Harrell Holmes Jr. and James T. Lane play the Temptations in “Ain’t Too Proud” at the Fox Theatre. 
Courtesy of Emilio Madrid.

Combined ShapeCaption
From left, Marcus Paul James, Jalen Harris, Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Harrell Holmes Jr. and James T. Lane play the Temptations in “Ain’t Too Proud” at the Fox Theatre. Courtesy of Emilio Madrid.

The Temptations’ backstage drama provides the structure for the musical memories.

Rampant egotism, drugs, alcoholism, domestic abuse, paranoia, suicide. “Ain’t Too Proud,” the jukebox musical about the Temptations playing at the Fox Theatre through Sunday, has all the beloved singing group’s big hits: the self-inflicted ones.

And of course it has the hits that became part of our never-ending soundtrack: “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “My Girl,” “Get Ready,” “Ball of Confusion,” “I Can’t Get Next to You” and many more.

This ridiculously energetic Broadway national tour manages to both celebrate the music and illuminate the backstage bitterness. And it makes the storytelling cohesive rather than schizophrenic, which is no easy feat.

Combined ShapeCaption
From left, Harrell Holmes Jr., Jalen Harris, Harris Matthew, Marcus Paul James, James T. Lane play the Temptations in “Ain’t Too Proud” at the Fox Theatre. Courtesy of Emilio Madrid.

Credit: Emilio Madrid

From left, Harrell Holmes Jr., Jalen Harris, Harris Matthew, Marcus Paul James, James T. Lane play the Temptations in “Ain’t Too Proud” at the Fox Theatre. 
Courtesy of Emilio Madrid.

Credit: Emilio Madrid

Combined ShapeCaption
From left, Harrell Holmes Jr., Jalen Harris, Harris Matthew, Marcus Paul James, James T. Lane play the Temptations in “Ain’t Too Proud” at the Fox Theatre. Courtesy of Emilio Madrid.

Credit: Emilio Madrid

Credit: Emilio Madrid

The story is told by Otis Williams, the only surviving member of the original group, whose 2002 memoir was adapted by playwright Dominique Morisseau and staged by the “Jersey Boys” team of Des McAnuff (director) and Sergio Trujillo (choreography) for the 2019 Broadway show.

Williams (Marcus Paul James) narrates onstage, and gradually becomes the dramatic throughline as members come and go. “Sometimes, ‘Temps’ also stood for ‘Temporary,’” he says. (There have been 24 Temptations over the years.)

In addition to Williams in what is known as the “Classic Five” were David Ruffin (Elijah Ahmad Lewis), Eddie Kendricks (former Atlantan Jalen Harris, with an achingly pure falsetto), Paul Williams (James T. Lane) and Melvin Franklin (Harrell Holmes Jr.). Atlanta native Michael Andreaus plays Motown mogul Berry Gordy, who was sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but never in doubt as he guided their career, along with that of the Supremes and Smokey Robinson (all of whom show up here) and many other Motown acts.

Their run at the top started in 1964 with “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” (Early on, Williams quotes “You’ve got a smile so bright/ You know you could have been a candle,” and then deadpans “Not exactly Langston Hughes,” signaling the irreverence the show will bring to the canon.)

Although young Temps replacements continue to tour today with Williams, who’s now 80, the band’s songbook legacy was pretty much wrapped by 1972, with “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (which, it turns out, they hated because of that loooooong intro, until it hit No. 1 and won a Grammy).

The group’s goal, as set by Williams and Gordy, was to be a seamless ensemble with no single breakout lead singer. Which was fine, except David Ruffin was the consummate breakout lead, and he knew it. All five of the singer-dancer-actors in “Ain’t Too Proud’s” Classic Five are fantastic, but Lewis, as Ruffin, absorbs the spotlight like a sponge whenever he is near a microphone, with his silken voice and moves. The cocky charisma just pours off him.

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Jalen Harris plays Eddie Kendricks of the Tempations in the national touring company of “Ain’t Too Proud” at the Fox Theatre. Courtesy of Emilio Madrid.

Credit: Emilio Madrid

Jalen Harris plays Eddie Kendricks of the Tempations in the national touring company of “Ain’t Too Proud” at the Fox Theatre. 
Courtesy of Emilio Madrid.

Credit: Emilio Madrid

Combined ShapeCaption
Jalen Harris plays Eddie Kendricks of the Tempations in the national touring company of “Ain’t Too Proud” at the Fox Theatre. Courtesy of Emilio Madrid.

Credit: Emilio Madrid

Credit: Emilio Madrid

But Ruffin also got into drugs early, and his narcissism nearly broke the others, so they made the difficult decision to kick him out. Even then, in you-can’t-make-this-up fashion, Ruffin would show up at Temptations concerts, bolt onstage and grab a microphone and start singing, to the crowd’s delighted surprise.

Ruffin’s life, however, did not end with semi-comic antics, but with a tragic drug overdose in a Philadelphia crack house. Paul Williams became an alcoholic and committed suicide. Kendricks grew estranged from the others and left in 1970, eventually dying of lung cancer at age 52. Their melancholy hit “I Wish It Would Rain” becomes a recurrent theme: “I need rain to disguise/ The tears in my eyes.”

Broadway producers know that audiences don’t want to walk out feeling downbeat, however, so “Ain’t Too Proud” ends with the whole cast belting out the selections from that catalog of hits, the explosive power of well-crafted rhythm and blues from a music factory that knew how to churn out quality.

Even though we’ve heard them a zillion times, the conceit of the show is that the Temps, and the Fox audience, are back in the day, hearing them for the first time. If you’re old enough, maybe your first time was on an AM car radio, or a 45 rpm single. If you’re young enough, it’s Spotify and “OK Boomer,” which also works.

“I thought we’d live forever,” Williams sums up at the end, recalling a young man’s misunderstanding of mortality. “But it was the music that lives forever.”


THEATER REVIEW

“Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations”

Through March 13. $40-$129. Broadway Over Atlanta at the Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org.