Like its biographical/musical predecessor, “Jersey Boys,” the production of “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations” is a get-up-out-of-your-seat-and-clap ride that is a mix of history and sheer entertainment, hearkening back to an era characterized by a changing social landscape and, in The Temptations’ case, the popularization of R&B.
The five original members comprising The Temptations – Otis Williams, Elbridge “Al” Bryant, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, and Paul Williams – met and came together in the hub of Detroit, Michigan. While there would be subsequent and noteworthy lead-singer replacements, including David Ruffin and Dennis Edwards, among others, The Temptations became synonymous with soulful dancing and harmonies that revved up even the sullenest of dispositions.
The energizing quintet that was discovered by Motown’s Berry Gordy, before earning 14 R&B number-one singles, entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and three Grammy Awards, can be re-experienced by those who lived through it the first time and seen/listened to with a fresh perspective for the unitiated at the Ahmanson Theatre through September 30th. Since debuting last year at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, this run in Los Angeles might be the precursor to something more on Broadway. Two-time Tony Award-winning director Des McAnuff (who coincidentally also directed “Jersey Boys”) has put his imprint on an incredible show, bringing to magnificent life Dominique Morisseau’s excellent script (based on Otis Williams’ “The Temptations”), which shines gloriously amid Sergio Trujillo’s rollicking and indefatigable choreography.
The narrative is engrossing on its own, but with the celebrated hits like “Shout” “Get Ready,” “I Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “My Girl,” and much more from the Motown Catalog, the feeling of being at a happening concert permeates the senses, allowing for an enthralling experience.
From the moment the audience witnesses the five men in their silver sartorial splendor (thanks to Paul Tazewell’s costume design) spotlighted as superstars (Howell Binkley is the lighting designer) while singing “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” the audience knows they’re in for a treat. Robert Brill’s crisp scenic design – inclusive of recording studios, offices, and the American Bandstand stage – proves to be immersive. And, Kenny Seymour’s music direction and arrangements, along with Harold Wheeler’s orchestrations, form the vivacious instrumentation in which the performers sing effortlessly to.
Derrick Baskin is Otis Williams, the founder of the band, whose maturity and no-nonsense attitude regarding accountability, has kept the The Temptations going until this day even after several iterations. Baskin, whose Williams also narrates the proceedings, brings a palpable sensitivity to the role that makes him immediately likable. He leads the attendees along a memorable journey that highlights his relationships with not only his peers, but his son Lamont (Shawn Bowers), juxtaposed against “the road” being his life’s calling.
As the stalwart Melvin Franklin, Jawan M. Jackson’s superb bass voice and charisma are on display from his very introduction when his Franklin comically runs away from Baskin’s Williams, who only wants to inquire about adding Franklin to his group. In addition, Paul Williams, the choreographer of The Temptations, is played with a devoted passion by James Harkness, whose smooth vocals bowl over the audience. Williams, yet, was beset by his own inner demons as the stress of touring became too much, and Harkness conveys this with a vulnerability that is very affecting, especially during “If You Don’t Know Me by Now.” And just as Harkness emotes seamlessly via song and dance, Jeremy Pope’s portrayal of Eddie Kendricks offers an intensity that transfixes the observer because it reminds of Michael Jackson – from his fluid dance moves to his pitch-perfect falsettos. Not to mention, Kendricks’ “exit” during “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” reveals a poignancy and an overall versatility to Pope’s ability.
As The Temptations’ first lead vocalist, Al Bryant, Jarvis B. Manning, Jr. is a powerhouse performer in his own right, doing splits, and spins with nary a sweat coming off his brow. Filling in the shoes of Bryant’s successor, David Ruffin, is Ephraim Sykes who also moves with the best of them, first by mellifluously singing “My Girl,” before baring his entire soul and more with a vocal power that refuses to relent. Of Course, Ruffin’s durability was blighted by his egocentric behavior and lack of responsibility, leading to his ouster. Dennis Edwards takes over, whose fiery and stirring mannerisms are played by Saint Aubyn, who, for instance, garners much laughter in how he reacts to the absurd lyrics of “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” which nonetheless reached No. 1 on U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
Furthermore, the legendary decision-maker, Berry Gordy, is played with class and dignity by Jahi Kearse. He effectively personifies an honorable man, who, despite not always being right, had The Temptations’ best interests in mind. Smokey Robinson (Christian Thompson) and his song-writing aptitude, as well as Shelly Berger, the group’s manager (Joshua Morgan) are depicted in a similarly good-intentioned light. Of the females, The Supremes (Nasia Thomas, Candice Marie Woods, and Taylor Symone Jackson) are given ample time to shine, too, in their sparkling red dresses, as they perform indelible tunes like “Come See About Me” and “Baby Love.” Last, but not least, is Rashidra Scott’s admirable Josephine, who, as Otis Williams’ first wife, remains supportive of him and their son throughout much of The Temptations’ rise. In a pleasant surprise, Scott’s impressively sonorous vocals earn a spontaneous applause from the crowd in the midst of “If You Don’t Know Me by Now.”
All in all, for anyone wanting a reason to cheer and live vicariously through the lens of a remarkable history that underscores the quintessence of Rhythm and Blues, then “Ain’t Too Proud” is a must-see production. The Temptations’ story, as told through the eyes of Otis Williams, is one that features singing and dancing at the highest level, buttressed by a chronology of iconic tunes that unfailingly resonates. Music has no barriers or limitations, and “Ain’t Too Proud” appeals to not just aficionados of musical theatre, but across the globe to an audience that would love to experience it.
Editor’s Note: This review is based on the August 24th performance of “Ain’t Too Proud,” in which the actual Berry Gordy, Shelly Berger, Mary Wilson of The Supremes, and Otis Williams were present in the audience and individually acknowledged by Derrick Baskin following the show.
For more information about “Ain’t Too Proud” at the Ahmanson Theatre, please visit centertheatregroup.org