Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
For Otis Williams, the last surviving member of the original Temptations, the Motown hitmakers were bigger than any one personthey were a musical (and social and political) force all their own. They could drop and add personnel and still be The Temptations. Since their genesis in 1961, the Temps have had 26 different members. Clearly the common myth is holding strong.
As one of the most successful musical groups of all time, the story of The Temptations was ripe for the telling. Producers Tom Hulce and Ira Pittleman, the team behind American Idiot, which bowed at Berkeley Rep in 2009, have returned to the Roda Theatre for the world premiere of Ain't Too ProudThe Life and Times of The Temptations, a musical that takes us along for the group's ride to the top of the charts. It's a steep climb, and once the summit is achieved, not everyone thrives in the thin air of superstardom. But through all the interpersonal conflict, battles of egos, addictions and violence, The Temptations survived.
The show has tremendous potential. At the helm is director Des McAnuff, who also guided one of the most successful jukebox musicals ever, the stellar Jersey Boys. Like that megahit, Ain't Too Proud benefits from a tremendous catalog of musicsome of the most powerful R&B and soul music ever recorded. Many of Motown's biggest hits (from The Temptations, as well as their contemporaries The Supremes, and others) are here: "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," "I Can't Get Next to You," "For Once in My Life," "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "Get Ready," "My Girl" and a couple of dozen others are there to propel the show forward.
Forward is the direction bandleader (and narrator), Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin) has always on his mind: "I didn't have my shoes on backward," he says. More than anyone else, it's Otis (who happens to be the last surviving original Temptation, and was present at this week's opening) who keeps the shared fiction of the group alive. "Don't nothin' rewind but a song" is a mantra that keeps him focused on the future. The challenge is, is he moving fast enough?
Scenic designer Robert Brill has created a stunning environment for the story of The Temptations to play out. A giant marquee spans the width of the stage (but occasionally flies out of sight), and various scrims and projection surfaces allow lighting designer Howell Binkley and projection designer Peter Nigrini to work magic with light and color and imagery to take us on the road, into the office of Berry Gordy, and into theaters around the world where The Temptations played.
The cast assembled here is marvelous. Just as Otis promises the original band members that all will be equal, and no one star will hog the spotlight, every performer on stage has something valuable to add to this production. As David Ruffin, the troubled and egotistic main lead singer, Ephraim Sykes brings a powerful, soulful voice that fills the Roda Theatre with a gorgeous tone. Jarvis B. Manning, Jr., who plays second lead Elbridge "Al" Bryant (who is given the boot early on due to alcohol abuse and a violent temper) hits some notes that elicited gasps of pleasure from the audience. Jared Joseph, Jeremy Pope, and James Harkness (as Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, and Paul Williams, respectively) perform their roles with tremendous energy and stage presence.
Dance moves being part of the signature appeal of The Temptations, the show is fortunate to have Sergio Trujillo (who also choreographed Jersey Boys) on the creative team. His steps echo the moves of the original group, but with a contemporary verve that is marvelous to seeand is beautifully realized by the performers.
Unfortunately, the potential impact of the show is undercut by two flawsone that could be fatal, and one that could be easily mitigated.
The book, by playwright Dominique Morisseau (like the Temps, also from Detroit), is overloaded with excess baggage that drags what should be an energetic race through the history of this superstar group. She relies too much on clichá, and spends far too much time telling us aspects of the story that she should instead find ways of showing us. Lines like "A lot has changed since we first got together" and "I gotta tell you something, Otis" are just two of many examples of fat that could be trimmed. When McAnuff directed Jersey Boys, he benefitted greatly from a fantastically compact and cogent script by Rick Elice that packed maximum story into minimum lines, and the show rocketed along. Thirty minutes could easily be cut from this script.
The second mistake is hiding the band from view. Music director Kenny Seymour has a top-notch group of musicians who provide the soulfulness and energetic rhythms the great music of Motown deserves. But with them out of sight, too much of that energy is lost. When the band was finally revealed at curtain call, you could feel the energy of the room lift tremendously. The moment they appeared there was a palpable shift upward in the mood of the crowd assembled in the Roda.
No matter what happens to this show when/if it heads to Broadway, and even when the last remaining original member, Otis Williams is no longer performing, The Temptations will live on, both as a performing troupe and through their recorded legacy. But if Ain't Too ProudThe Life and Times of The Temptations is to add to that legacy, it needs to lose the fat.
Ain't Too ProudThe Life and Times of The Temptations runs through October 22, 2017, in the Roda Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. Shows are Tuesday, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Sundays at 7:00 p.m., and 2:00 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $60-$135, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. Tickets are available online at www.berkeleyrep.org, or by calling the box office at (510) 647-2949.