Theater Review: AIN’T TOO PROUD–THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE TEMPTATIONS (Pre-Broadway Run at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on August 25, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


Sometimes jukebox bio-musicals get so caught up in the fame and fortune of the journey that they miss the creative passion that is the true force driving most artists forward. Happily, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations at the Ahmanson Theatre puts the music front and center, and under Des McAnuff’s expert direction, the performers give themselves over fully to the experience. The magic of the music takes over. Dialogue about how much music means to them takes second position to seeing it in action for ourselves.

Something very special emerges, even as the story itself hits familiar beats: In Detroit in the late ‘50s, under-aged Otis Williams gets in trouble, gets out of juvenile hall, and decides to turn his life around by forming a band. Motown is on the ascendancy and he wants in. Various interactions and plot twists take us to the Temptations. Some find love; some lose it; most develop bad habits as money, adulation, and various substances prove stronger than the music to varying degrees. The group of five men who feel like brothers splinters, leaving Otis feeling alone and bereft for the magic that once was — yet also full of love and earned pride at the miracle that was (and is) the Temptations.

Dominique Morisseau’s book anchors the events within the larger struggle of the civil rights movement. I’m a huge fan of her work (Skeleton Crew), and she is largely able to make the political feel personal. She is on firm ground when exploring the racism the group routinely encounters on tour and their feelings about the reductive process of “crossing over.” Her handling of the death of MLK is trickier. The power of the tragedy is there, but it feels borrowed—as if the show is trading on that pain to add depth to the story. It doesn’t need to. There’s also some VH-1 Behind the Music-style narration from Otis about fame and addiction that is truly unfortunate.

Yet Morisseau also gives the characters humor and self-awareness. After a terrific opening number, “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” Otis laughs about the lyrics, citing “You got a smile so bright, you know you could have been a candle” as being “hardly Langston Hughes.” Derrick Baskin is amazing as Otis—knocking it out of the park every time musically, and ably taking us through long sections of narration, that in someone else’s hands might have become tedious.

As one would expect, the true-life details have been rearranged and liberally edited, though the dizzying number of earlier band formations are covered, including the Cavaliers, the Primes, Otis Williams and the Siberians, the El Domingoes, the Distants, the Elgins, and finally, the Temptations—which would go on to have 24 members over the decades.

The best moments come when the songs tell the story. Otis and wife Josephine break up, and Rashidra Scott stops the show with “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” It’s a bold, unexpected choice, giving a secondary character such a huge moment, but it works. “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” also has deeper reverberations for the characters than the song itself, marrying the music to the narrative.

Otis Williams is the last man alive from the original five members. Paul Williams died in 1973, David Ruffin died in 1991, Eddie Kendricks died in 1992, and Melvin Franklin died in 1995. The show is told largely from his point of view, and though it doesn’t spare him as a man with flaws, I do wonder what the other four men might think of this telling of their lives. Maybe his efforts to hold things together were as selfless as they seem here, but I would love to hear what the four of them have to say.

All five performers who play the Temptations — Baskin, James Harkness (Paul Williams), Jawan M. Jackson (Melvin Franklin), Jeremy Pope (Eddie Kendricks), and Ephraim Sykes (David Ruffin) — are spectacular, each with moments of greatness, each with his own style. Sykes is as much of a standout as Ruffin was in the original group, both as a singer/dancer, and as an actor. When Ruffin is cut from the group he starts showing up randomly, rushing the stage during subsequent shows. Sykes is hysterically funny yet also truly heartbreaking in those moments.

Jackson’s bass as Melvin is arguably deeper and more mellifluous than even the man himself. Every time he opens his mouth we want more. Harkness is all heart as Paul and he moves like a dream, while also making the character’s slide into alcoholism believable and touching. Pope is terrific as Kendricks, though he had some vocal problems with the falsetto on opening night.

The entire ensemble is equally gifted. As the various group formations come and go early on, Jarvis B. Manning, Jr. is wonderful as Al Bryant — you can see why they chose him, and you can see why they kicked him out. Jahi Kearse plays Berry Gordy with style and wit; Nasia Thomas does a fresh, ferocious turn as Melvin’s righteous mother; and as the two principal writers for the group, Christian Thompson as Smokey Robinson and Jarvis B. Manning, Jr. as Norman Whitfield are droll and believable. I didn’t even get that Manning was both Al and Norman until writing this and consulting the program.

As the Supremes. Candice Marie Woods, Nasia Thomas, and Taylor Symone Jackson are vibrant and they blend well. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo does marvelous work throughout, but he gives the Supremes moves that seem broader and more sexual than I remember from clips of the group I’ve seen on television. They always seemed more ladylike than depicted here — sexy as hell — but not actually sexual. Musically, the Supremes’ numbers are rather brutally cut and pasted. Perhaps it is a matter of how many lines can be used legally under the rights deal granted for those songs, but it’s jarring.

The stage is like a forward moving kaleidoscope. Howell Brinkley’s lighting design, Peter Nigrini’s projection design, and Robert Brill’s scenic design keep things fluid and fast. It’s a bare bones approach that may or may not be dictated by budget, but it works.

During the curtain call, Derrick Baskin introduced the band’s longtime manager, Shelly Berger in the audience, as well as legends Berry Gordy, Mary Wilson, and finally, Otis Williams. James Harkness (Paul) was so overcome with emotion that he couldn’t stop crying and beaming, seemingly both at the same time. Soon we were all crying — and clapping and dancing too. Ain’t Too Proud is slated to open on Broadway in Spring 2019 at the Imperial Theatre.

photos by Michael Murphy

Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations
Music Center’s Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave.
ends on September 30, 2018
for tickets, call 213.972.4400 or visit CTG

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