Fresh from Lincoln Center and ramping up for its premiere on Broadway, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations arrives buffed, polished and ready to impress at the Ahmanson Theatre (onstage now through September 30).
As one of the quintessential all-male vocal groups to emerge from the Motown era and achieve international acclaim, the Temptations are certainly worthy of the jukebox musical treatment. It boasts a stellar cast firing on all cylinders and powering through a catalog of hits from “Just My imagination” and “My Girl” to “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” and the titular “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.”
Derrick Baskin strikes the right cord as the group’s founding member and moral center, Otis Williams. He counsels his bandmates early on that their collective strength is greater than their talents as individuals. Sage advice, but something the band would struggle with in the years to come. Baskin does double duty as the show’s narrator, taking audiences back to the early days of Motown where young Otis finds himself in Detroit as a recent transplant from Texarkana.
He gets off to a rocky start when he lands in juvenile detention at the tender age of 16. It’s during the course of that sobering reality check that Otis makes a pact with God to turn his life around. He’s inspired by popular African-American doo-wop group, instilling in him the belief that singing could be his salvation.
Otis takes the audience through the group’s formative years as he starts to enlist members: One of his first recruits is Melvin Franklin (played by Jawan Jackson), whose distinctive bass vocals helped define their sound. Decked out in matching suits and cruising through town in a flashy red Cadillac, “Otis Williams and the Distants” started to gain traction.
Taylor Symone Jackson provides comedic flair as their fast-talking wheeler/dealer manager, Johnnie Mae Matthews. She’s effective at booking their gigs and grooming their image, but it’s not long before they realize she’s reaping the profits without equitably sharing the dividends. When they cut ties, Johnnie Mae takes back not only her Cadillac, but the band name as well, claiming ownership. They regroup as The Elgins, adding two members who would go on to become the core of the Temptations . . . Paul Williams (played by James Harkness) and Eddie Kendricks (played by Jeremy Pope).
When Otis spots Berry Gordy (played by Jahi Kearse) at one of their gigs, Otis corners the star-making record exec in the men’s room, in a comic moment seemingly straight out of a Hollywood movie. Berry Gordy is impressed by what he hears, but gives Otis two pieces of advice: They need original material and they need a better name. Rechristened The Temptations, Gordy pairs them with a young songwriter named Smokey Robinson. But it’s not until they find the fifth member, David Ruffin, that the Temptations lock into their groove. Played with charisma and verve by Ephraim Sykes, Ruffin’s smooth vocals provide the secret sauce that would make the group a household name. Sykes brings a dynamic energy required for the most combustible member of the band, whose inner demons would ultimately threaten to unravel his — and the band’s — success. Ain’t Too Proud shines brightest when the Classic 5 (as they came to be known) hone their act to perfection, combining the dance moves, the vocal blend and the sharp attire, and perform those familiar hits that became the soundtrack to an era.
Like that other jukebox musical about a legendary vocal group, Jersey Boys, which spent a dozen years on Broadway, Ain’t Too Proud leans heavily on the personal lives and the infighting amongst the members. Herein lies the double-edged sword of the jukebox musical which offers a sure-fire vehicle with a catalog of hits; but the constraints of a true story spanning decades can feel unwieldy, and doesn’t always adhere to a dramatic through-line.
Such is the case when the author delves into the respective deaths of the founding members. Fortunately, the musical numbers and the showmanship keep the show churning along. Ruffin’s departure from the group becomes the polarizing issue which pits Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope) against Otis Williams. Ultimately Otis is able to persuade the others that in order to save the band, they need to let Ruffin go. But Ruffin doesn’t take his ouster easily, surprising his former compatriots with unannounced (and unwelcome) appearances where he takes to the stage and literally steals the mic from his replacement. It’s one of those stranger-than-fiction moments that yields genuine comedy gold.
Ain’t Too Proud also charts the band’s rise to prominence against the turbulence of the Civil Rights era. There are glimpses of the pressures to conform and maintain a non-threatening image which kept the Temptations from recording the Vietnam protest song “War,” which went on to become a massive hit for Edwin Starr. And along with success came strains placed on them by their personal lives which often took a backseat to their careers.
Case in point was Otis’ relationship with Josephine Rogers (a potent Rashidra Scott), the woman who would bear his child. Otis spent most of his time on the road, making it nearly impossible to forge a meaningful relationship with either his wife or son. Ruffin, meanwhile, took up with another popular Motown singer of the time, Tammi Terrell (played by Nasia Thomas), but that relationship hit the skids once he became abusive. Her death from brain cancer at the age of 24 sent Ruffin into a tailspin. As the show plows through the final chapters of the band — and the deaths of its founding members — it feels a bit heavy-handed and obligatory. But these shortcomings inherent in the genre are overcome by the strength and showmanship of the performers who won over this opening night audience with a seemingly endless ovation.
Last modified: September 10, 2018