Broadway Review: Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations

In the six decades since The Temptations began, as we’re told near the end of the latest Broadway jukebox musical “Ain’t Too Proud,”  24 men have performed at one time or another as members of this R & B quintet. Even the “classic five,” as Temptation fans call them, were not all involved at the beginning, when Otis Williams got a group of his Detroit homeboys together, and snagged a recording contract with Berry Gordy’s Motown Records.

The Temptations, in other words, is less a band than a brand – one that has sold 25 million records worldwide, turning out 17 top 40 pop hits, among them four that made it to number 1:  “I Can’t Get Next To You,” “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” and arguably their biggest earworm, “My Girl.” Others include “Get Ready” and the song that gives the show its title, “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.”

“Ain’t Too Proud” is an extension of the Temptations brand. It’s subtitled “The Life and Times of The Temptations,”  but it would be more accurate to label it The Song and Dance of the Temptations. Those are the reasons people will want to see this show, and these are the aspects of the show that will most reward them. The 31 songs are largely peak Motown (and include some hits from the Cadillacs and the Supremes; see song list below) Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is a thrilling upgrade of the group’s trademark dips, snaps, splits, sways and twirls.  The performers are talented enough as singers and dancers to be members of the actual Temptations — original, classic or replacement — and they can act too.

Derrick Baskin portrays Otis Williams, who was the founder of the group, and the only surviving member of the classic five. The musical is based on the 1988 memoir that he wrote with Patricia Romanowski entitled “The Temptations,” and he is credited as the executive producer of the show. It makes sense, then, that Otis is the narrator. The story, shaped by librettist Dominique Morisseau, is told from his point of view.

As Morisseau, an acclaimed playwright making her Broadway debut, explained in an article for TDF Stages, , she ordered the songs to buttress the narrative. For example, she used “Runaway Child, Running Wild” for an early scene set in the mid-1950s, although The Temptations actually performed it during their “psychedelic soul period” in the late 1960s. The lyrics tell a story of a runaway who is “roaming through the city/ going nowhere fast.”  After each verse the group sings,  Otis explains the background of the pre-Temptations teenagers, “five youngbloods growing up in Detroit — a factory town with fast engines and tough knuckles.” All of them were “country boys” who came up from the South, and adjusted in all the wrong ways. We see 16-year-old Otis getting sent to a juvenile detention center for six months for robbery and gang activity, then promising the judge “I ain’t never gonna do nothin’ to make me lose my freedom again.”

But it’s not just Otis’ story. “Ain’t Too Proud” wants to tell everybody’s story –  the classic five, sure, but also those whom they replaced, and those who replaced them, as well as their neglected families. We see their struggle to keep together and get to the top, bickering with each other all along the way. We also see how fame and life on the road take a sometimes tragic toll on each individual’s health, their equilibrium, their relationships, their family life. Paul Williams (James Harkness) drinks too much and dies young, his death ruled a suicide. There’s one scene where all but Otis are freebasing cocaine. In a nod to the promise of the subtitle, there are also scenes that reflect the contentious times: While riding on their tour bus in the South, they’re shot at by racists. There is much thought-provoking back and forth about the requirements, restrictions, and resentments involved in being crossover artists.

This all-inclusive approach has two stumbling blocks.  The general outline of rising to the top and falling from grace, feels overly familiar. And with so many songs, characters and incidents to get through, there is little time to keep the story from coming off as generic. The proceedings can feel rushed, the transitions jarring. Not long after one of the Temptations announces that Martin Luther King Jr. has been assassinated, followed by a quick relevant montage accompanying the song “I Wish It Would Rain,” we see the group sitting in their dressing room, looking morose. But the reason why they’re morose is because David Ruffin, a terrific singer but a screw-up, is late, and they want to kick him out of the group. Mourning finished; we have  to move on.

In fairness to “Ain’t Too Proud,” it’s hard to come up with a single example in tbe rapidly replicating subgenre of jukebox bio-musical that has done full justice either to its subject(s) or to the art of theater. The one that comes closest is probably “Jersey Boys,”  Des McAnuff’s first foray into the genre as a director. He is also the director of “Ain’t Too Proud,” and of last year’s “Summer.” The saving grace of these shows is their function as showcases and training grounds for some terrific performers.

The show’s savviest move is in the casting.

Jeremy Pope, who just made an impressive Broadway debut as the lead in Chorus Boy, carries forward the lesson he learned on how both to stand out and blend in for his portrayal of Eddie Kendricks. Rashidra Scott lets loose as Josephine, Otis’s put-upon first wife, with “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” She is a veteran of five other Broadway musicals, including “Beautiful,” a jukebox that several other “Ain’t Too Proud” performers list in their bios. Jawan M. Jackson gives us the silky deep bass of Melvin Franklin, aka Blue. Jackson made his Broadway debut in Motown The Musical, which also cast Ephraim Sykes. Sykes has also performed in “Memphis” and “Newsies” and “Hamilton,” as well as NBC’s production of Hairspray Live as Seaweed J. Stubbs.  As David Ruffin in “Ain’t Too Proud,” Sykes steals the show, with moves that astound, and sounds to die for. That he commands attention seems to fit the character he’s playing. Even after the unruly Ruffin is  kicked out of the group, he pops up on stage to perform with the reconfigured group in a series of ambushes. In one of Otis’s cornier lines, he says: “David was getting addicted to the worst drug of all: The spotlight.”  May the performer who portrays him maintain this addiction for many more years – and shows – to come.

Ain’t Too Proud
Imperial Theater
Written by Dominique Morisseau
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 design by Charles G. LaPointe, fight direction by Steve Rankin, associate choreographer Edgar Godineaux, music coordinator John Miller, vocal supervision by Liz Caplan, orchestrations by Harold Wheeler, Music
Direction and Arrangements by Kenny Seymour.
Cast: Derrick Baskin as Otis Williams,
James Harkness as Paul Williams, Jawan M. Jackson as Melvin Franklin, Jeremy
Pope as Eddie Kendricks, and Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin. 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.

Songlist (listed alphabetically)

Ain’t Too Proud to Beg
(music by Edward Holland, Jr. and Norman J. Whitfield; lyrics by Edward Holland, Jr. and Norman J. Whitfield)
Baby Love
(music by Lamont Herbert Dozier, Brian Holland and Edward Holland, Jr.; lyrics by Lamont Herbert Dozier, Brian Holland and Edward Holland, Jr.)
Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today)
(music by Barrett Strong and Norman J. Whitfield; lyrics by Barrett Strong and Norman J. Whitfield)
Cloud Nine
(music by Barrett Strong and Norman J. Whitfield; lyrics by Barrett Strong and Norman J. Whitfield)
Come See About Me
(music by Lamont Herbert Dozier, Brian Holland and Edward Holland, Jr.; lyrics by Lamont Herbert Dozier, Brian Holland and Edward Holland, Jr.)
Don’t Look Back
(music by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White; lyrics by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White)
For Once In My Life
(music by Ronald Miller and Orlando Murden; lyrics by Ronald Miller and Orlando Murden)
Get Ready
(music by Smokey Robinson; lyrics by Smokey Robinson)
Gloria
(music by Ester Navarro; lyrics by Ester Navarro)
I Can’t Get Next to You
(music by Barrett Strong and Norman J. Whitfield; lyrics by Barrett Strong and Norman J. Whitfield)
I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)
(music by Carl Christiansen, Rodger Penzabene, Sr., Helga Penzabene, Roger Penzabene, Jr., Barrett Strong and Norman J. Whitfield; lyrics by Carl Christiansen, Rodger Penzabene, Sr., Helga Penzabene, Roger Penzabene, Jr., Barrett Strong and Norman J. Whitfield)
(I Know) I’m Losing You
(music by Cornelius Grant, Edward Holland, Jr. and Norman J. Whitfield; lyrics by Cornelius Grant, Edward Holland, Jr. and Norman J. Whitfield)
I Want a Love I Can See
(music by Smokey Robinson; lyrics by Smokey Robinson)
I Wish It Would Rain
(music by Rodger Penzabene, Sr., Barrett Strong and Norman J. Whitfield; lyrics by Rodger Penzabene, Sr., Barrett Strong and Norman J. Whitfield)
If I Could Build My Whole World Around You
(music by Johnny Bristol, Vernon Bullock and Harvey Fuqua; lyrics by Johnny Bristol, Vernon Bullock and Harvey Fuqua)
If You Don’t Know Me By Now
(music by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff; lyrics by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff)
I’m Gonna Make You Love Me
(music by Gregg America, Skip Batey and Gregg Crockett; lyrics by Gregg America, Skip Batey and Gregg Crockett)
In the Still of the Night
(music by Fred Parris; lyrics by Fred Parris)
Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)
(music by Troy Carter, Anthony Fontenot, Barrett Strong, Norman J. Whitfield and Armique Wyche; lyrics by Troy Carter, Anthony Fontenot, Barrett Strong, Norman J. Whitfield and Armique Wyche)
My Girl
(music by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White; lyrics by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White)
Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone
(music by Barrett Strong and Norman J. Whitfield; lyrics by Barrett Strong and Norman J. Whitfield)
Runaway Child, Running Wild
(music by Barrett Strong and Norman J. Whitfield; lyrics by Barrett Strong and Norman J. Whitfield)
Shout
(music by Ronald Isley, Rudolph Isley and O’Kelly Isley; lyrics by Ronald Isley, Rudolph Isley and O’Kelly Isley)
Since I Lost My Baby
(music by Warren Moore and Smokey Robinson; lyrics by Warren Moore and Smokey Robinson)
Speedo
(music by Ester Navarro; lyrics by Ester Navarro)
Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are)
(music by Barrett Strong and Norman J. Whitfield; lyrics by Barrett Strong and Norman J. Whitfield)
The Way You Do the Things You Do
(music by Smokey Robinson and Robert Rogers; lyrics by Smokey Robinson and Robert Rogers)
War
(music by Barrett Strong and Norman J. Whitfield; lyrics by Barrett Strong and Norman J. Whitfield)
What Becomes of the Brokenhearted
(music by James Dean, Paul Riser and William Weatherspoon; lyrics by James Dean, Paul Riser and William Weatherspoon)
You Can’t Hurry Love
(music by Lamont Herbert Dozier, Edward Holland, Jr. and Brian Holland; lyrics by Lamont Herbert Dozier, Edward Holland, Jr. and Brian Holland)
You’re My Everything
(music by Carl Christiansen, Cornelius Grant, Rodger Penzabene, Sr., Helga Penzabene and Norman J. Whitfield; lyrics by Carl Christiansen, Cornelius Grant, Rodger Penzabene, Sr., Helga Penzabene and Norman J. Whitfield)

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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