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Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations purports to tell the story behind the famed R&B group that recorded many of Motown’s most popular and successful songs. But director Des McAnuff, a veteran of such other Broadway jukebox bio-musicals as the misbegotten Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and the runaway hit Jersey Boys (as well as Jesus Christ Superstar and The Who’s Tommy), and book writer Dominique Morisseau, a rising playwright who has written the Detroit Trilogy (Detroit ’67, Skeleton Crew, Paradise Blue), never approach cloud nine in this standard show that goes by the numbers. The story is based on the memoir of Temptations founder Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin), who narrates the chronological tale, from his childhood to the present day. After serving a stint in prison, he is determined to go straight, making his way in the music world.
He puts together a talented group of singers he initially calls Otis Williams and the Distants, then the Elgins, and finally, following an “accidental” meeting with Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) in a men’s room, the Temptations: Williams, the deep-voiced Melvin Franklin (Jawan M. Jackson), band choreographer Paul Williams (James Harkness), and up-and-coming superstars Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope) and David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes). Gordy teams them first with songwriter Smokey Robinson (Christian Thompson) and later Norman Whitfield (Jarvis B. Manning Jr.) as they eventually tear up the charts. But success also brings a clash of egos, drugs and alcohol, womanizing, domestic abuse, and the inability to maintain family relationships because of the constant touring, resulting in a revolving door of Temptations except for Otis, who remains throughout.
Sergio Trujillo’s choreography captures the Temptations’ skillful movements, with Sykes eliciting shrieks of excitement from the audience for his spectacular moves, and Harold Wheeler’s orchestrations do justice to the Motown originals, from “My Girl,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” to “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me),” “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” and “I Can’t Get Next to You,” although some are condensed for time or broken up in the narrative. There are also hits from the Supremes, the Cadillacs, the Five Satins, and others that sometimes feel out of place as McAnuff and Morisseau try to provide musical context. The main group’s backup vocals are excellent, but the lead singers often fall short; it’s impossible to expect that the Broadway actors will reach the heights achieved by, for example, Kendricks and Ruffin, but several songs suffer for it. The story addresses the civil rights movement and the dire socioeconomic situation in Detroit in a bumpy manner, almost as if an afterthought, and the projections by Peter Nigrini are often repetitive and hard to figure out as they are shown on Robert Brill’s ever-changing set, which boasts a conveyor belt to help props and characters enter and exit.
Baskin (Memphis, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) is amiable and warm as Otis, a charming, principled man who chooses fame over family — Baskin is so comfortable in the role that he sweetly replied a few times to a woman in the audience who called out like she was at a church service — with a superb Rashidra Scott (Beautiful, Sister Act) as his wife, Josephine, and Shawn Bowers as his son, Lamont. Jackson (Motown: The Musical) is lovable as Franklin, a big man whose impossibly deep voice resonates through the theater and rattles in your bones. Also in the cast are Saint Aubyn and E. Clayton Cornelious as replacement Temptations Dennis Edwards and Richard Street, respectively; Nasia Thomas as Motown star Tammi Terrell, Florence Ballard of the Supremes, and Franklin’s stern mother; Joshua Morgan as the Temptations’ longtime manager, the white and Jewish Shelly Berger; Candice Marie Woods as Diana Ross; and Taylor Symone Jackson as Mary Wilson and Otis’s first manager. Paul Tazewell’s costumes and Charles G. LaPointe’s hair and wig design are right-on. Ain’t Too Proud looks and sounds good, but it fails to dig deep enough under the surface of one of R&B’s most beloved and seminal groups.