Ain’t Too Proud isn’t too original, but it should appeal to fans of the Temptations, the most successful African-American recording group in history.
The musical’s five leads gorgeously harmonize on such hits as “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),” “My Girl” and “I Can’t Get Next to You.” Sergio Trujillo’s kinetic homage to the group’s original choreography includes dazzling splits, slides and spins.
Ain’t Too Proud reunites director Des McAnuff and Trujillo, whose 2005 blockbuster about the Four Seasons, Jersey Boys, remains a gold standard of the jukebox genre. It overcame a mixed Ben Brantley review to win four Tony Awards, gross more than $2 billion worldwide and spawn innumerable imitators.
Jersey Boys features Rashomon-like storytelling, as the audience hears different parts of the plot from different members of the group, with each one opining on how the story should go.
In contrast, the Ain’t Too Proud book by MacAurthur “genius” winner Dominque Morisseau is a mile wide and an inch deep. In adapting the memoir of Otis Williams, the lone survivor of the original Temptations, there’s lots to cover and less leeway for shifting perspectives, as most of the original members died decades ago. Williams is credited as an executive producer, and his character, nicely underplayed by Derrick Baskin, narrates.
The story zips from Williams’ early brush with the law on the streets of Detroit; to his wooing of bass singer Melvin Howard (Jawan M. Jackson) by appealing to Howard’s intimidating mom; to the group topping charts; to internal friction and drug abuse by lead singer David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes) and drinking by singer/choreographer Paul Williams (James Harkness). There’s the obligatory high-stakes TV appearance, on American Bandstand, and a scare on a tour bus in the south, when the Temptations were shot at and taunted.
Morisseau, who grew up in Detroit, has said that she wanted to depict how the Temptations figured out their lives and artistic identities as black men in a time of civil unrest. In one of the more interesting exchanges, Motown impresario Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) explains why he wouldn’t release a recording of Norman Whitfield’s 1970 protest song “War” as a Temptations single.
“Once the white audience thinks they know you, you can’t go switching on them,” Gordy says. “‘T.V.’ black, ‘radio’ black, not the same as ‘political’ black. You have to serve them music in a way that’s digestible.”
Fun footnote: Before Ain’t Too Proud’s tryouts in Berkeley, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Toronto, Sykes and Jackson played Temptations members as part of the ensemble of the 2013 Broadway production of Motown.
My vote for most exciting Broadway Temptation is newcomer Jeremy Pope. With his sinewy dancing and falsetto, the 26-year-old could well get Tony nominations for playing lead singer Eddie Kendricks and for his acclaimed turn in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy. He’d be the first actor nominated for a play and musical in the same season since Dana Ivey in 1984, who was cited for Heartbreak House and Sunday in the Park with George.
Ain’t Too Proud may be an imperfect vehicle, but Pope is going places.
Editor: Alice Scovell