But after leaving Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, which opened Thursday at the Imperial Theatre (to Nov. 24), a happy revelation: This jukebox musical not only has life, it also has wit, intelligence, while also looking stunning and full of energy.
Ain’t Too Proud is a sharp, bracingly written biographical story intertwined with wonderful music (played live) and gorgeously stylish choreography by Sergio Trujillo. It’s as funny, revealing and moving as it is hummable and toe-tapping.
This is a rich portrait of a Motown singing group, both one for fans and for those who don’t know much about the “Temps” at all: a survey of strengths, weaknesses, history, moments of triumph, moments of tragedy, and a nuanced analysis of the reality of legend and fame.
It doesn’t rush at you. It breathes. It lets you think. It dazzles you. It’s no snooze, but it is not a relentless, loud, senses-bombarding juggernaut.
With a book by The Detroit Project playwright Dominique Morisseau (who has a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius Grant,’ among many other awards) and directed by Des McAnuff, Ain’t Too Proud, with great economy and while looking a million dollars, tells the history of the group, its members, its impact, its own history and the wider history it existed within. It is both celebratory and measured.
Just reading the opening directions of Morisseau’s script gives a clue to the show's excellence: “Lights up on a stage exploding in lights and energy. Five men dressed in fly suits and hair slicked like bullets are center stage. They move as smooth as melted butter on a biscuit.”
Oh yes, they do.
The show’s narrator, Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin), is the last surviving original Temptation (there have been 24 members of the group to date since it was founded in 1963), and the story the musical tells takes us through to the death of the last of Williams’ original colleagues.
The show begins with "The Way You Do The Things You Do," with Williams—Baskin is a lovely narrator; clear, witty, circumspect, going at his own careful speed—noting that the line, You got a smile so bright, you know you could have been a candle? “ain’t exactly Langston Hughes.” (The choreography in this opening is some of the original group‘s; an homage, a show spokesperson said.)
“Building this group was some kinda testimony of will,” Otis says. “Like a shepherd herding sheep up the mountain to stand before the Almighty. When you finally reach the summit, you realize all the flock have scattered and you’re the only one left.”
We meet Paul Williams (James Harkness), Melvin Franklin (Jawan M. Jackson), Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope, last seen in Choir Boy), and David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes). We begin on the streets of Detroit ("Runaway Child Running Wild"), with Otis jailed for six months for gang activity and robbery.
Music is the route to personal salvation as well as fame and success, with Morisseau excellent at elevating detail amid the grand sweep: the Temps’ first manager, the ruthless Johnnie Mae (an excellent Taylor Symone Jackson); Otis meeting manager Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) in a restroom; the importance and presence of longtime songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield (Jarvis B. Manning Jr.); the early ejection of Al Bryant (Manning, Jr.), to be replaced by Ruffin. Marvel as Sykes burns up the stage as the colorful, never ego-shy frontman.
In Motown, the Supremes (Candice Marie Woods, Nasia Thomas, and Jackson) are the Temps’ rivals. The musical does not shy from tough material: Ruffin abusing Tammi Terrell (Thomas) within their relationship, Otis being a lacking husband to Josephine (Rashidra Scott) and father, and the various addictions and illnesses that befall the original band’s line-up.
Instead of telling these storylines in an overwrought style, or even telling them at length, Morisseau and McAnuff figure out a lean, clever middle way—detail-rich skeins of stories that land profoundly, with Temptations songs playing as background and foreground.
The story is told in perfect unison with Kenny Seymour’s music direction and arrangements, piercing projections (Peter Nigrini), unfussy stage decoration (Robert Brill), luxuriant lighting (Howell Binkley), and perfect, sharp costuming (Paul Tazewell; not just the suits, there’s an early, fabulous, button-up top I’m still dreaming of).
The racism the group endured in the South is conveyed via “Don’t Look Back,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” gunshots, images of Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, racist abuse, and an angry realization that “crossing over”—which Gordy is so focused on when it comes to the band’s success—is always incumbent on the band to do, rather than the target white audience. “They listen to our music long as they ain’t gotta deal with us in the flesh.”
The group is angry that, at a time of fighting for civil rights, Gordy wants them to remain so inoffensive. Whitfield gave “War (what is it good for?)” to Edwin Starr, not them. “Once the white audience thinks they know you, you can’t go switching on them,” says Gordy. “‘TV’ black. ‘Radio’ black. Not the same as ‘Political’ black. You have to serve them music in a way that’s digestible. Otherwise they jump ship and we lose all we worked for.”
“Ball of Confusion,” “Superstar,” and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” accompany various departures and replacements. The odd thing is, even if you didn’t know anything about these dramas, or even that much about the group, you find the trajectory of these stories and tragedies moving.
It’s a jukebox musical knife-edge, trying to ensure the dovetailing of song and story and dance doesn’t become too predictable, neat, and hokey. Ain’t Too Proud negotiates this storytelling tightrope nimbly. The only cavils are in what is missing, such as the story of Dennis Edwards (the marvelous Saint Aubyn), who replaced Ruffin. Ain't Too Proud stays fixed on the original band.
It knows how to make us laugh, and laugh at itself; group members, we learn, were angry and resistant when recording “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Otis says: “We wanted it to flop so we could get back to our money-making ballads. Instead, this sucker became our fourth No. 1 record. Sold over two million copies. Earned us three Grammys. What can I say? Some stuff grows on you.”
Eventually, The Temps became a mega-group when some old members returned, before tragedy struck again. And then even more tragedy. And still more. “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?” inevitably accompanies this litany.
“I never meant to be the last one standing,” says Otis. “Thought my brothers would live forever. But I guess the only thing that really lives forever is the music.” And, he adds quite rightly, “some of the smoothest moves ever known to five men and a mic.”
A lovely, stage-packed finale encapsulates the spirit of this musical and possibly the group itself: a celebration of entertainers and entertainment. (George Farmer, who plays bass guitar in the show, has to soak his arm in ice after the performance, as if a baseball pitcher, a show spokesperson said.)
The story of The Temptations, of how music is made and enjoyed, is right here, rooted in a past that is tough, funny, glamorous, dramatic, and still—24 members and counting—continuing triumphantly into the present.