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Theatre in Review: Ain't Too Proud (Imperial Theatre)

Ephraim Sykes and cast. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Ain't Too Proud, the latest biomusical to roll off the Broadway assembly line, does little to distinguish itself from its predecessors, all of which follow the same general scenario: Young, ambitious, and naïve musical talents struggle for attention, sign ill-advised contracts, rise to the top, turn against each other, hit the skids and/or abuse substances, and, finally, come back together, sadder but wiser, for a bittersweet reunion. Each of the recent entries in the genre offers mild variations on this formula -- and there also is a subset in which a female star (named, say, Carole, Donna, or Cher) only comes into her own after getting rid of those pesky, controlling men -- but what each has to offer is a series of pop hit covers. In the case of Ain't Too Proud, if you've been dying to see a Temptations tribute act -- admittedly, a very good one -- this is the show for you.

Seeing Ain't Too Proud in the Imperial only emphasizes its resemblance to another fictionalized musical that played there in 1982. With its Detroit setting, a cast of black musicians aiming for crossover success, scenes of group infighting, an Act I that ends with the ejection of a key talent, and a climactic reunion finale, the show might legitimately be renamed Dreamboys. Then again, given the presence of director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo, not to mention the use of an onstage narrator and a gimlet eye for the betrayals of show business, you could call it Detroit Boys. The one thing you can't call it is original.

Hiring the distinguished playwright Dominique Morisseau to turn out a boilerplate book seems like overkill, although if Ain't Too Proud is a success and it finances her next six plays, it will have been well worth it. On the plus side, Morisseau occasionally brings her wry way with a line to the project. The Temptations' leader, Otis Williams, quoting the group's long-awaited first hit, says, "'You got a smile so bright, you know you could have been a candle?' Not exactly Langston Hughes." But, mostly, this is the same rise-and-fall story that you've seen so many times before, and a rather patchily constructed iteration, at that. The group comes together, hits it big, runs amok with the ladies, overindulges in booze and coke, and the inevitable squabbling begins: Success fails to beget happiness. As group member Paul Williams says, "Who knew you could be on top of the world and still feel beneath it?"

History is written by the victors -- or, in this case, the survivors -- and Ain't Too Proud is told entirely from the point of view of Otis Williams, the founder and the only Temptation to span the group's six-decade history. Fair enough, but, since most of the book focuses on his conflicts with the others, it is telling that he often comes off as the only adult in the room, forever trying to herd his unruly, undisciplined colleagues. The plot increasingly comes to resemble an episode of Game of Thrones, with one misbehaving Temptation swapped out for another, and one begins to wonder why so many of them crashed and burned, thanks to personal problems -- and if Otis' controlling ways had anything to do with it. In any case, Morisseau isn't adept at connecting the dots. In one scene, Otis is horrified to discover that, just before showtime, his fellow Temptations are strung out from freebasing; they taunt him, inviting him to join in. This is something rather more serious than a few drinks too many: Was this an ongoing group problem? A single act of rebellion? No answers are provided, and not for the last time.

Indeed, what we get is a carefully curated official history of The Temptations; note the billing, as creative consultant, of Shelly Berger, the group's longtime manager, who is also a character in the show, most often serving as hatchet man when it comes time to fire somebody. All of this lends a slightly sour undertone, never mind the parade of fiendishly catchy upbeat tunes. Morisseau tries to style Ain't Too Proud as a wistful look at the price of success: "When," Otis says, "it's time to revisit your journey, measure if it was worth the cost of losing your brothers." In reality, it's about the preservation of a brand that keeps on rolling long after most of the original "Classic Five" have departed or died. As Otis notes, near the end, there have been twenty-four Temptations, all of them apparently equally replaceable. If this is a triumph, it is an awfully chilly one.

Of course, all the songs you might expect are on tap, including "Ball of Confusion," "Get Ready," "I Wish It Would Rain," "My Girl," and "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," all of them delivered with brio, if not total audibility. (Steve Canyon Kennedy's sound design sometimes lets the voices get lost in Harold Wheeler's orchestrations.) The orchestra, under the direction of Kenny Seymour, really cooks, nailing every infectious bass line and brass flourish; this is the Motown one remembers with such toe-tapping fondness. Trujillo's choreography effectively channels the smoothly synchronized moves that continue to be one of the Temptations' signal features. The best parts of Ain't Too Proud remind one why The Temptations constituted one of the greatest musical acts of the 1960s and '70s.

The performances range from solid to inspired. As Otis, Derrick Baskin establishes a strong rapport with the audience, lending credibility even when one feels that we're not getting the full story. The gifted Jeremy Pope, fresh off Choir Boy, channels Eddie Kendricks' tenor lines, creating unearthly vocal trails that float above everything else. (He could profitably work on his singing diction, however.) He also spars effectively with Baskin in scenes of intramural conflict. Jawan M. Jackson's Melvin Franklin is Kendricks' fine opposite number, creating subterranean resonances with his bass vocals and deftly avoiding conflicts with the others until his health starts to fail and he has to fight to stay onstage. The show has little interest in why David Ruffin gives in to bad behavior, making him the first to be cast out -- or why Kendricks defends him to the end, causing a split in the group -- but Ephraim Sykes makes him into a plausible figure and dynamic performer. He is especially captivating when, in exile, he takes to crashing performances and stealing focus from his replacement. At the performance I attended, Paul Williams, the fifth member of the group, was played by the understudy Curtis Wiley, giving a thoroughly creditable performance.

Among the supporting cast, Saint Aubyn has some ferocious vocals as Dennis Edwards, Ruffin's replacement. Both Jahi Kearse and Joshua Morgan have some strangely wooden line readings as, respectively, Motown mogul Berry Gordy and Shelly Berger. This is not a show in which women really matter, but Nasia Thomas has a nice turn as Tammi Terrell, who dates Ruffin and lives to regret it, and Rashidra Scott does well by the role of Josephine, who marries Otis (in a shotgun wedding) without grasping that a pop-star husband won't be around the house much.

Trujillo's musical staging keeps the actors moving in time to the sleek, kinetic production design. Robert Brill's backstage set features a marquee that swoops in to reveal where the Temptations are performing next, along with moving panels that the projection designer Peter Nigrini fills with tracking images of city names, city streets, American Bandstand audiences, and Detroit in flames during the late 1960s race riots. Howell Binkley's lighting effortlessly burnishes each tableau, adding an extra patina of theatricality. Paul Tazewell's costumes are a reliable guide to changing times and changing fashions.

In the end, Ain't Too Proud, like most of its predecessors, yokes a hit parade of pop tunes to a thrice-told tale -- that's a conservative estimate -- of show business disillusionment. Given the legendary status of The Temptations, this may be enough for audiences of a certain age looking for an uncomplicated good time. But it's hard not to feel that an opportunity has been missed: Despite a few citings of the racial strife of the 1960s, this is pretty thin stuff. There is a much richer story to be told about black performers achieving breakout success against a background of a nation in turmoil. Come to think of it, that's the plot of Dreamgirls, isn't it? -- David Barbour

(1 April 2019)

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