Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 21, 2019
Ain't Too Proud - The Life and Times of The Temptations Book by Dominique Morisseau. Music and Lyrics from The Legendary Motown Catalog. Based on the book The Temptations by Otis Williams with Patricia Romanowski. Directed by Des McAnuff. Choreography by Sergio Trujillo. Scenic design by Robert Brill. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy. Projection design by Peter Nigrini. Hair and wig and design by Charles G. LaPointe. Fight director Steve Rankin. Associate choreographer Edgar Godineaux. Music Coordinator John Miller. Vocal supervisor Liz Caplan. Orchestrations by Harold Wheeler. Music direction and arrangements by Kenny Seymour. Cast: Derrick Baskin, James Harkness, Jawan M. Jackson, Jeremy Pope, Ephraim Sykes, Saint Aubyn, Shawn Bowers, E. Clayton Cornelious, Taylor Symone Jackson, Jahi Kearse, Jarvis B. Manning Jr., Joshua Morgan, Rashidra Scott, Nasia Thomas, Christian Thompson, Candice Marie Woods, Esther Antoine, Marcus Paul James, Jelani Remy, and Curtis Wiley.
While there is no formalized definition of a bio-jukebox musical, what you consistently find in the genre is a combination of performances of songs associated with a well-known singer or group (Examples: The Four Seasons, Carole King, Cher, Donna Summer) and some attempt at offering up their personal story. With respect to the biographical content, one should not expect any of these shows to "keep it 100," subject as they are to the scrutiny of the performers being depicted (or their estates), and anyone else with their fingers in the pie. While Motown founder Berry Gordy is not one of the producers of Ain't Too Proud, Sony/ATV, EMI, and Universal Music are, and they all have a stake in the Motown catalog as well as the success of this show. You've also got The Temptations' lone surviving and original founding member, Otis Williams, and the show's book writer, Dominique Morisseau, standing between the audience and the unvarnished truth.
Still, whatever may have been done at someone or other's insistence, as jukebox musicals go this is one of the stronger ones. Where many such shows use a performer's background as filler between songs, this one most definitely comes with its bona fides. To begin with, it is based on an actual book, "The Temptations," written (with celebrity autobiography collaborator Patricia Romanowski) by Mr. Williams, who, as played by Derrick Baskin, takes pride of place as the show's narrator. In addition, that book was adapted for the stage by a well-established playwright, Ms. Morisseau, who can count a 2018 MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" as one of the recognitions of the quality of her work.
You've also got in Des McAnuff a director who knows his way around such shows, having done the honors for Jersey Boys and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. What he does well is to keep things moving at a fast and steady clip and to put those singers out front as often and as much as possible. Of course, The Temptations get the lion's share of the singing spotlight, and they are well represented by the cast members.
In addition to Mr. Baskin, there are the other members of the "Classic Five," as the original quintet is referred to. James Harkness plays baritone Paul Williams (no relation to Otis), who served as the group's first choreographer (Sergio Trujillo, the show's actual choreographer, has a very good handle on the moves associated with the various Motown groups represented). Jawan M. Jackson is Melvin Franklin (also known as "Blue"), whose deep, deep bass voice is his signature identifier. Ephraim Sykes plays David Ruffin, perhaps the best known individual member of the group (he was the lead singer, for instance, on "My Girl") who left for the seemingly greener pastures of a solo career. And the fifth member, Eddie Kendricks, is played by Jeremy Pope, who barely took a weekend off from his starring role in Choir Boy before Ain't Too Proud started previews for its Broadway run. It was Eddie who fought to hold the group together when it became apparent it was time to replace Paul, yet he himself left a little later to team up with Ruffin and to pursue his own solo career.
Also given a generous amount of stage time and several songs of their own are The Supremes, headed up by Candice Marie Woods looking and sounding quite a bit like Diana Ross on "Baby Love" and "You Can't Hurry Love." While we are namedropping here, also showing up are Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse), the man behind Motown, and Smokey Robinson (Christian Thompson), who wrote many of The Temptations' songs.
Act I follows the more typical jukebox musical pattern by throwing out a lot of exposition about how The Temptations formed as a group and about their early career, along with some background about growing up in Detroit and the corresponding rise of Motown. It's a lot to absorb. With so many characters popping in and out, that, unless you come into the show with an encyclopedic knowledge of time and place, it's hard to keep the players straight. The only one we know at all at this stage is Otis, who is narrating both the story and his story.
But things balance out much better in Act II, when we actually begin to differentiate among Otis and Melvin and Paul and David and Eddie as the play looks at the group's and the members' successes, challenges, in-fighting, and egos. Here is where Ain't Too Proud stands out from other jukebox musicals, by bringing to life the individual members of a five-person group and by allowing us to follow their ups and downs, even if by necessity, their stories are condensed to fit the form.
Ultimately, Ain't Too Proud helps us to understand that The Temptations was more than just a product of the Motown machine, as were, after all, many other individual singers and groups that have faded from memory. It explains why we continue to listen to their recordings, attend the live performances even with a seemingly endless line of replacement singers ready to step it, and why audiences are coming to see this show. It matters that we understand the impact of alcohol abuse and other health-related problems on Paul's life that led to his apparent suicide. It matters that David died of drug addiction, Eddie of lung cancer, and the likeable Melvin, who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes, of complications tied to his treatment with cortisone.
Only Otis, who is now in his late 70s, remains of the "Classic Five," and so it is only right that his voice be the one to guide us through the story of The Temptations. Maybe he "ain't too proud," but he ought to be mighty proud of what he and this group have accomplished over these many years.