By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
The Motown Sound served as the soundtrack of the generation of the Sixties and Seventies and to those of that certain age, the music that accompanied those turbulent times was never without a hit song from The Temptations.
Broadway’s previous success Motown: The Musical told the story of the Motown Record Company and its big three labels of Motown, Tamla and Gordy from the perspective of producer and hitmaker Berry Gordy. At the core of Gordy’s success were acts like The Supremes, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Jackson Five and Stevie Wonder. But no one group ever had as many hits nor as sustained a trajectory as The Temptations.
Based on the book “The Temptations” by Otis Williams (with Patricia Romanowski), Des McAnuff directs Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, currently playing at the Imperial Theatre. Unlike many other jukebox musicals, this production features the story of the group in question as told through their songs and others selected from the Motown repertoire.
Their story, fraught with insightful life lessons on the trappings of success and celebrity, is delicately handled by award-winning playwright Dominque Morisseau, who received the first Tony nomination ever for an African-American woman in the category of Best Book of a Musical. There are 11 other nominations including two for Derrick Baskin and Ephraim Sykes as Leading Actor in a Musical and Featured Actor in a Musical, respectively.
It would have been easy for Morisseau to stick to just the songs popularized by the group, but the brilliance of her book are choices for songs popularized by other Motown artists to connote both happy and difficult periods in the lives of the performers. At a point where relationships are clicking, for example, Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life” resonates powerfully whereas Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” recounts hard times.
“If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” originally sung by Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes out of Philadelphia, not Detroit, fits in seamlessly with the other selections and richly conveys the necessary emotion to evoke a sense of loss experienced by the singers and their loved ones.
There are more than 30 selections – some truncated – and mostly sung by the core group of five Temptations: Otis Williams (Baskin), Paul Williams (James Harkness), Melvin Franklin (Jawan M. Jackson), Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope) and David Ruffin (Sykes), all of them moving in original and inventive choreography by Sergio Trujillo. It was Trujillo’s intent to evoke the style of the original group, but to also update the moves for a Broadway audience. He brilliantly succeeds with cast members providing a non-stop succession of impressive splits, powerful leaps and intricate footwork throughout the two acts and two-and-a-half-hour duration.
Like its highly successful jukebox musical cousin Jersey Boys, which documented the story of The Four Seasons, Ain’t Too Proud offers insight into the formation, success and tragedies associated with The Temptations, but in a way that is both genuous and pithy. This is not a musical merely stitched together with hit songs, but could better be described as highly charged and choreographed scenes accompanied by unforgettable and powerful musical selections.
The arc of the story begins with neighborhood friends seeking fame and fortune. It moves towards their formation, depicts their difficult early years, continues with initial success and a steady rise up the charts, adds insight into their management, relates the out-of-control actions of many of their members and the need for replacements, before it culminates with the demise of all, but Williams, the original founder.
It would be wrong to surmise that the story is only about The Temptations. As the full title indicates and with selections like “Ball of Confusion” and “War,” there is ample commentary on the uneasy events that shaped them as singers in a country where racism, hate and violence were the calling cards of the day. Interestingly, the messages in their songs of the era helped to directly ease the nation’s conscience and added healing and comfort to many of those who tried to confront prejudice and hate.
Also important to the story of The Temptations are the women in their lives. These include Florence Ballard of the Supremes and Tammi Terrell (Nasia Thomas), Diana Ross (Candace Marie Woods) and Williams’ wife Josephine (Rashidra Scott). While the appearance of girl groups like The Supremes or female singers are much more limited, when they do hit they stage, their performances resonate with the strength of superlative song and technically superior choreography.
As David Ruffin, Sykes is a knockout performer, stealing the thunder from Baskin’s more challenging leadership role of Williams. Jawan Jackson adds foundational support as the deepest bass in the group, Melvin Franklin. Jackson played the same role in Motown: The Musical, so it was a natural fit for him to accept this role. Singers Paul Williams (James Harkness) and Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope) round out the main members of the group, each with impressive leads in songs like “I Wish It Would Rain” and “My Girl.”
While the original Temptations will never be together again, Ain’t Too Proud is as close as modern audiences will ever come to seeing them perform. McAnuff has done an incredible job of preparing the actors for their roles and making sure that Morisseau’s descriptions ring true. The obvious camaraderie between cast members translates into sharply defined performances that are thoroughly enjoyed by the audience. Their personal tragedies of individual affected by drug addiction, alcoholism, hubris and disease only add to the appreciation of how fragile their lives were and how impressive their achievements were as united members of The Temptations. This is a show that leaves one happy and richer for the theatrical experience. It has all of the ingredients to run for a long time on the Great White Way.
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations is directed by Des McAnuff and is enjoying an open run at the Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St in New York. With a book by Dominque Morisseau and songs culled from the Temptations and the Motown catalog, the show runs two and a half hours. Choreography is by Sergio Trujillo with scenic design by Robert Brill, lighting design by Howell Binkley, projection design by Peter Nigrinin, sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy and costume design by Paul Tazewell. Music direction and arrangements are by Kenny Seymour with orchestratons by Harold Wheeler. For tickets, click here.