Theater review by Adam Feldman
The Temptations are hard to resist. No matter how much you may chafe at the clunky machinery of Broadway’s latest jukebox biomusical, Ain’t Too Proud, the hits just keep coming, distracting your critical faculties with zaps of R&B greatness. And when the show is at full power—when its lavishly gifted stars are lined up for duty in natty matching suits, moving and singing in synch through songs like “My Girl,” “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”—the gleam of well-polished nostalgia is strong.
Is that enough, though? The problem with telling the story of the Temptations is that there isn’t a clear central story to tell. Much of Ain’t Too Proud focuses on the so-called Classic Five period from 1964 through 1968, when the quintet’s main frontman is the bespectacled and charismatic David Ruffin, played by the sensational Ephraim Sykes with a riveting combination of showboating dance moves and rough-edged soul vocals. High tenor Eddie Kendricks (the expressive Jeremy Pope) occasionally takes the lead vocals, backed by baritones Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin) and Paul Williams (James Harkness) and bass Melvin Franklin (the impressively deep-throated Jawan M. Jackson). But since the group’s membership has been in continual flux since its Motown debut in 1961, Ain’t Too Proud entrusts its narration entirely to the last Temp standing: Otis, who has been with the group from the start and performs with it to this day.
The musical is based on Otis's memoir; he is also credited as an executive producer. In dramatic terms, unfortunately, he may be the least compelling member of the group: the backup, the backbone, the cold-blooded company man. Baskin plays Otis with a slow and steady sense of virtue, but as he ushers member after member of his band of brothers to the exit door—for drug abuse, for alcohol, for seeking a bigger cut of the Motown profit pie—one wonders whether his narration is meant to seem as unreliable (and, often, as unsympathetic) as it does. But such slyness would be uncharacteristic of Dominique Morisseau’s workmanlike script, which rarely moves beyond an Otis-centric timeline of milestones and occasionally lapses into the kind of cliché that elicits the wrong kind of laughter. (“David was getting addicted to the worst drug of all: the spotlight.”)
You may well have seen this before: It is Motown the Musical by way of Jersey Boys, with a soupçon of Dreamgirls in the Act One finale that makes you wish the intragroup dynamics were more fully developed throughout. But Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo, who also collaborated on Jersey Boys, keep things speeding along: The conveyer belts and turntables of Robert Brill’s set are hardly ever still, and the dancing represents a highly amped-up version of the Temptations’ actual moves (sometimes at a slight cost to vocal precision). The songs do their work, and the ensemble cast shines whenever it gets a chance; Rashidra Scott makes an impression as Otis’s ex-wife, for example, as does Saint Aubyn as Ruffin’s peevish replacement, Dennis Edwards. As musical theater, Ain’t Too Proud could generously be described as shameless. But as an evening of musical entertainment, it ain’t too shabby.
Imperial Theatre (Broadway). Book by Dominique Morisseau. Music and lyrics by various Motown songwriters. Directed by Des McAnuff. With Derrick Baskin, Ephraim Sykes, Jeremy Pope, James Harkness, Jawan M. Jackson, Saint Aubyn. Running time: 2hrs 35mins. One intermission.