Broadway's Temptations Musical Ain't Too Proud Sends Fans Into a Frenzy
The songs are tremendous, but the show is hollow. Does it matter?
The crowd doesn't need to be told to "get ready" — they are primed from the second the lights go down at the Imperial Theatre. The response to Ain't Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations is frenzied; I'm pretty sure patrons would be on their feet for the entire two-and-a-half hours if they were allowed to be. While I found this new musical to be a surprisingly glum affair, and only marginally savvier than its cousin Motown The Musical, I am also happy to give credit where it's due. No new show has a better grasp of what its target audience wants than this one does. In that respect, Ain't Too Proud delivers all the goods — and then some.
The sweet spot for this production, created by Jersey Boys and Summer collaborators Des McAnuff (director) and Sergio Trujillo (choreography), is filled with boomers and Gen Xers, the people who grooved to the sounds of the "Classic 5" — Otis Williams, David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, and Eddie Kendricks — and can still sing the harmonies of "My Girl" and "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone." This is the origin story of that first version of the Temptations, told from the perspective of Otis, the music group's founding, still-touring, and only surviving member.
With a book by Obie-winning playwright Dominique Morisseau, the musical takes its jumping-off point from the 1988 memoir that Otis penned with Patricia Romanowski. Morisseau is a superb writer; her plays Skeleton Crew and Pipeline are vivid and real. Rather than dramatize anything about the group's ascent from the streets of Detroit to worldwide fame, however, the story is narrated, relentlessly, by protagonist Otis (an utterly thankless role essayed by the warm Derrick Baskin), whose main philosophy is that it's not about the individual personalities of the singers, but about the songs.
Perhaps that's why Ain't Too Proud feels like a nearly three-hour PowerPoint presentation, only skimming the surface and rarely finding any depth in the characters and their individual struggles with fame and ego and…temptation. Otis is the only one afforded a backstory and personal life (he married an underage woman after she got pregnant, and then put his musical career ahead of fatherhood), but the sheer amount of telling gets in Baskin's way of fully fleshing out a living, breathing man whose passion for the work has led him to concertize with younger artists to this very day.
The conflicts in Morisseau's book arise from the individual downfalls of the other four, and it plays out like a list of bullet points — Paul (James Harkness): fame and alcoholism. David (Ephraim Sykes): ego and drugs and fame. Eddie (Jeremy Pope): fame and ego and lung cancer. Melvin (Jawan M. Jackson): rheumatoid arthritis. Their performances are great, particularly Sykes, who is an outrageously good vocalist and practically glides as he dances, but I couldn't tell you anything about what made these guys tick. Perhaps that's strategic on the part of the real Otis Williams, whose actual Temptations band is now on its 24th career member, but it doesn't make for compelling theater.
While the text sits like a lump, borrowing elements from better shows (the first-act finale is straight out of Dreamgirls), the actors have nary a second of stillness. McAnuff keeps them constantly in motion on a treadmill and turntable (elements integral to Robert Brill's gloomily austere set), often while forcefully dancing Trujillo's propulsive steps, which pay homage to the work of Motown house choreographer Cholly Atkins. Combined with costumer Paul Tazewell's chic, upscale menswear and the hot, stark lighting by Howell Binkley, the five core performers sweat buckets. You hope there are dressers waiting with towels in the wings, but that doesn't always seem to be the case.
Savvy theatergoers will likely find Ain't Too Proud to be a cynical experience, existing as a cash grab on the part of music publisher Sony/ATV and as a hoped artistic redemption from Berry Gordy's disastrous Motown The Musical (he and Smokey and the Supremes are all characters in this as well). I wish Morisseau had fully dramatized the most fascinating element of the piece, which gets breezed over: The Temptations managed to integrate music lovers, bringing together people of all races and genders, through songs that now have a fixed place in the canon of American popular music.
This fact is evident at the Imperial, as the adoring faces in the seats mouth the words to "Just My Imagination" and the title track, going crazy for this energetic company and fantastic 22-piece band as though they were the real things. With more substance, Ain't Too Proud would have been a better show, but it gives the audience what it wants — amazing songs, excellently performed — and that is clearly enough for them.