Broadway’s new jukebox musical features great songs, but otherwise scuffles.
The gold standard in Broadway jukebox musicals is Jersey Boys. This spring’s new jukebox offering, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations falls short of that level, but when you’ve got as many great songs as this one does, your audience is bound to leave satisfied.
Via clunky narration mostly delivered by the Temptations’ founder, Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin), who wrote the book on which the show is based, we learn of the group’s Detroit beginnings in the era when the great industrial cities were filling up with Southern transplants. Williams, from Texarkana, Texas, befriended a bass singer, Melvin “Blue” Franklin (Jawan M. Jackson) from Alabama, then recruited a duo from that state, the unrelated Paul Williams (James Harkness) and Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope). After a fight that led to the exit of a fifth member, the group added David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes), who was the eager little brother of another rising singer, and was desperate to be noticed by the Temps. More than 20 singers would flit in and out of the Temptations over time, but this lineup became known as the “classic five.” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “My Girl” and “Get Ready” quickly followed, under the guidance of Motown founder Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) and the writer-producer-genius Gordy dubbed his “quality control”: Smokey Robinson (Christian Thompson). Meanwhile there are cameos by the Supremes (Mary Wilson dated Franklin) and Tammi Terrell (who dated Ruffin).
Gordy always saw the group as having “crossover” appeal, which meant short hair, matching suits and snappy dance moves designed to tempt white America. All of this was ingratiating and led to spectacular success, nicely recaptured by superb singing and dancing by the actors, but artistically the style became limiting as Motown evolved from anodyne love songs to angrier and more political fare after 1968. Thanks to Gordy, the Temps stuck with the bland appeal longer than some acts, recording the very 1960s ballad “Just My Imagination” in 1971. By that time the group was more interested in harder-edged material like “War,” which it was the first to record, but Gordy refused to release their version as a single and instead had it re-recorded by Edwin Starr.
Changing tack, Gordy eventually recognized the value in applying the new sound to the Temps and ordered up a new chief songwriter, Norman Whitfield (Jarvis B. Manning Jr.), whose creations took the act far afield. This wasn’t exactly what the Temptations wanted either, but the collaboration delivered the psychedelic-soul extravaganza “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” which hit number one on the pop charts in 1972 and won three Grammys. It would prove to be the act’s last enduring classic.
Amid the creative disagreements — Otis Williams thought he should have been allowed more opportunities as a writer — internal dynamics began to tear up the Temps. Ruffin, who wanted the group named after him the way the Supremes became Diana Ross and the Supremes, became an egomaniac increasingly in thrall to cocaine (he would die at 50 after passing out in a crack house). Kendricks followed him out the door. Misery seemed to shadow the group.
Though Otis Williams survives to this day (and owns the rights to the Temptations brand), there is so much bad luck and self-destruction attending the Temptations that the entire second act is a downer, and that’s without even much delving into such matters as racism, though there is a brief interlude in which the Temps face attack from racists while on tour in Birmingham. The director, Des McAnuff, stages a sweet, nostalgic farewell for each of the departed, but sorrow makes a strange backdrop for a Broadway crowd-pleaser, which normally sticks closer to the frivolity level of, say, The Cher Show, whose central figure is indestructible and who seized many later-life opportunities to silence her doubters. The Temptations just declined, and then declined some more.
McAnuff keeps things as lively as he can, even working in lots of songs that weren’t associated with the Temps. Billed as “Music and Lyrics from the Legendary Motown Catalog,” the slate includes numbers made famous by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the Supremes and the Isley Brothers, among others. The audience takes all of this in the spirit in which it’s intended and sings right along to much of it. As Otis puts it in a line that’s both trite and true, everything dies except the music.