Presented by Dayton Live, “Ain’t Too Proud,” which premiered on Broadway in 2019, is told through the lens of Otis Williams, the last surviving original member of the Motown quintet, which included Ruffin, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks. Based on Williams’ 1988 memoir “The Temptations,” the show follows the group’s rise from the streets of Detroit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
With signature smooth dance moves – recreated with Tony-winning finesse by choreographer Sergio Trujillo – and distinct harmonies, the group rose to the top of the charts in the 1960s and 1970s creating 42 Top 10 hits with 14 reaching No. 1. As personalities collide against the turbulent backdrop of civil unrest in America, the show addresses themes such as brotherhood, family, loyalty and betrayal while showcasing an array of Motown standards like “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “Just My Imagination,” “Ball of Confusion,” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” among many others.
Every fan of The Temptations has their favorite song and odds are it’s likely “My Girl,” the first No. 1 hit for the group in March 1965. Written by Smokey Robinson, the song established Ruffin as a soulfully expressive leader who was seemingly irreplaceable, a heartbreaking irony thrillingly detailed at the end of Act 1 in a manner recalling Effie White’s powerful exit in “Dreamgirls.”
Stepping into Ruffin’s shoes is no small feat, but Lewis says he embraces “My Girl” with clear intention and respect in spite of high expectations.
“It’s an iconic song,” he said. “There are so many generations that know ‘My Girl.’ I would be remised if I did not give it the originality it (deserves). Now of course I’m not David Ruffin, but there are elements I must keep because it’s a timeless classic. When people hear those memorable opening notes – do doo do, do doo do – they know exactly what’s coming, and you have to give them exactly what they want. I never try to imitate or copy. I try to embody. As an actor I’ve been given the information and the guidelines to do the job. I just hope, as I deliver my truth in the role, that it will be felt by the audience.”
Ruffin’s rocky relationship with his fellow Temptations as well as Motown songbird Tammi Terrell provide dramatic fodder throughout the musical, which features a Tony-nominated book by African American playwright Dominique Morisseau (“Detroit ‘67,” “Blood at the Root,” “Skeleton Crew”) who also co-produced the long-running Showtime dramedy “Shameless.”
Ruffin’s clashes within the group eventually led to him being fired in 1968 although he remained with Motown as a solo artist into the early 1970s. He briefly rejoined The Temptations in 1982 for the album “Reunion,” which featured the R&B hit “Standing on the Top” with Rick James, and notably partnered with Kendricks and Dennis Edwards in 1991 for a month-long tour of England. He died June 1, 1991 from a drug overdose.
Lewis recognizes the importance of embodying Ruffin in his totality as a skillful entertainer who also battled many personal demons.
“David Ruffin was a spectacular man who knew how to wow an audience and keep them engaged,” he said. “Of course, there are some dark things the musical (explores), but it is my job and duty to let people see the humanity in him, the negative and the positive. He loved to have fun and have a good time, but he also had a troubled childhood. During his time, when (events) happened, you couldn’t go to a therapist or call a hotline to talk about your troubles. Imagine your life and the things you choose not to show or tell people being put on front street because you had no choice. I feel like that’s what happened to David Ruffin. But he was like all of us. He just happened to be the greatest showman of all time.”
Under the Tony-nominated direction of Des McAnuff, the principal cast includes Michael Andreaus as Otis Williams, E. Clayton Cornelious as Paul Williams, Jalen Harris as Eddie Kendricks, and Harrell Holmes Jr. as Melvin Franklin. Before he portrayed Ruffin on tour, Lewis understudied the roles of Ruffin, Otis Williams and Kendricks on Broadway in addition to portraying Stevie Wonder in “Motown the Musical” on Broadway and on tour.
These experiences allowed him vital access to Otis Williams as well as Motown founder Berry Gordy, ensuring his performance would be enriched by words of wisdom from two people who helped create American music history.
“The great thing about the realness and the truth about this show is that we heard it from those who lived it,” said Lewis. “The Motown franchise is the soundtrack of our lives. When you hear a Motown song, it will take you back to where you first heard it. Berry Gordy said he wanted to make feel-good music for all people and that’s what he did. It was not ‘race music.’ It was music all people could dance to and be a part of. It was something that let people know we are more alike than we are apart. We are more a family than divided.”
Above all, Lewis is heartened by the enduring nostalgia of The Temptations, which paved the way for future acts to emulate their definitive artistry.
“If you look at boy band groups – Boyz II Men, B2K, the list goes on – they’ve all copied the formula of The Temptations,” he said. “And for us to continue the legacy of The Temptations – who are still around celebrating their 60th anniversary – is an honor.”
HOW TO GO
What: “Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations”
Where: Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St., Dayton
When: June 13-18; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
Tickets or more info: 937-228-3630 or visit daytonlive.org