By Darlene Donloe
LOS ANGELES — Otis Williams is sitting in the Founder’s Room at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles looking stylish in a leopard coat and matching fedora.
The last living original member of Motown’s hit-making male singing group, The Temptations, Williams is eager to talk about the musical, “Ain’t Too Proud, The Life and Times of The Temptations,” making its triumphant return to Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre after breaking records during its pre-Broadway run. The show is currently playing through Jan. 1.
With an energy that belies his 81 years, Williams, who recently returned from a European tour with the current quintet, is still performing. He gained legendary status with the original Temptations — Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin.
“I’m 81 years old,” Williams, who co-founded the group 61 years ago, told the appreciative crowd on opening night. “But I move like I’m 21. You know what the key is? We just got back from England. What I’ve been doing, is I take my ass to the room and I rest. I read and look at TV. That’s the key.”
“I’m 84 years old and I move like I’m 93,” joked Shelly Berger, who manages The Temptations and has maintained a 56-year bond with Williams.
“Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations,” based on the book, “The Temptation,” by Otis Williams with Patricia Romanowski, written by Kennedy Prize-winning playwright Dominique Morisseau and directed by two-time Tony Award winner Des McAnuff, is a high-energy jukebox musical.
From the moment the actors, portraying members of the legendary Motown group, step on the stage with precision-like choreography, there is nonstop dynamism, and, of course, pulsating music. Williams and Berger co-executive produce the show.
“Some of the producers decided to call the show ‘Ain’t Too Proud,’” said Williams. “‘Ain’t Too Proud’ is also one of the songs we can never take out of our repertoire when we perform. ‘My Girl’ is another. We did it once and the audience called us everything but a child of God. That song can never come off the lineup.”
After 61 years of fame and fortune, Williams said he is enjoying his legendary status.
“I wear the moniker “living legend” like a badge of honor,” he said. “All we ever wanted to do was sing and be successful. We’ve done it for 61 years. That’s a milestone.”
Asked what he thought Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin, all now deceased, would think of him “spilling the tea” about their lives in a musical, Williams said he believes they would approve.
“I would like to think they would feel proud because the story is being told,” he said.
“Ain’t Too Proud,” featuring Grammy-winning songs, is the story of brotherhood, family, loyalty and even betrayal set to the beat of the group’s hits — including “My Girl,” “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” “Get Ready,” “Just My Imagination,” “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Cloud Nine,” “Runaway Child” and “Running Wild” — while telling the group’s sometimes scandalous narrative.
Leading the cast of “Ain’t Too Proud” as The Temptations are Jalen Harris as Eddie Kendricks, Harrell Holmes Jr. as Melvin Franklin, James T. Lane as Paul Williams, and joining directly from the Broadway company are Marcus Paul James as Otis Williams and Elijah Ahmad Lewis as David Ruffin.
The show is guided and narrated by James who is not only a stalwart singer, he has equally impressive acting chops. As the narrator, he effectively moves the story along, occasionally interjecting bits of hilarity into the proceedings.
“I think we were all cast perfectly,” said Harrell Holmes Jr., a Saginaw, Michigan native who grew up watching The Temptations mini-series, and wanting to be a Temptation ever since he was 8 years old. “All of us have qualities of each of the Temps.”
When talking about the original Temptations, Williams emphasized the brotherhood they exhibited and tried to maintain. He said he sees the same thing in the five men portraying them on stage.
“One of the first things we did after we were cast was to go out to dinner,” Lane said. “You really get to know people over breaking bread. We connect, we check-in, and we tell each other stuff. We are in each other lives.”
“The personal time we have together is so important,” Harris said. “We hang out off stage as well. The example we have to look to is the actual brotherhood of the actual Temptations. It’s like we were brothers our whole lives. What you see on stage is true.”
“The Temptations are part of the soundtrack of our musical landscape,” Lewis said. “So it doesn’t matter what generation you are, culture, creed, background, or gender — you know this sound. You know this music. Even if you don’t know the lyrics, it’s embedded in you somewhere. It’s timeless.”
“To be able to bring to life real people and these real stories and to come to the table with the cup already half full, I don’t have to learn this,” James said. “I came in with some of this already. It’s strange to do as a Black person in musical theatre.”
James, who plays Otis Williams, is the only actor playing an original Temptation that is still alive. He doesn’t feel any pressure.
“It would make sense thinking about it from the outside,” he said. “But inside, Otis is so supportive. I don’t have to guess about anything. I can just ask the man. I can corroborate stories. He was always available and willing to tell you a story. He’s a resource for the role.”
All of the actors portraying members of The Temptations bring this story to life. The acting is on point, the choreography is brisk and exciting, and the music – well, the music speaks volumes.
The striking choreography is courtesy of Sergio Trujillo, who won a Tony Award for his work on the show.
“I’ve worked on this show for three or four years,” Trujillo said. “When I first started, I looked at footage of almost every appearance the Temptations had made. I empowered myself with the period.
“When it came time to choreograph the show, I said to myself, ‘What would I do if I was the choreographer of the Temptations?’ That was the thought process I went through.”
Trujillo said he wanted people who had seen the Temptations to think, ‘That’s what I remember,’ while the younger generation would think they were “slick moves.”
“It was scary as hell,” said Trujillo, who considers choreography a cast member. “It was a constant reimagining of the genre.”
The “Ain’t Too Proud” touring company features Michael Andreaus, Gregory Carl Banks Jr, Brian C. Binion, Reed Campbell, Lawrence Dandridge, Shayla Brielle G., Treston J. Henderson, Najah Hetsberger, Devin Holloway, Antwaun Holley, Kyshawn Lane, Traci Elaine Lee, Brett Michael Lockley, Harris Matthew, Amber Mariah Talley, Andrew Volzer, and Nazarria Workman.
“Ain’t Too Proud, The Life and Times of The Temptations,” is playing at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. L.A., through Jan. 1. Information: (213) 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.