By Elyse Trevers
It’s no wonder that Billboard called The Temptations “the number one group in the history of rhythm and blues.” With four No. 1 songs, 15 Top 10 hits and 53 singles, the group clearly made its mark on American music. From 1963 until today, 24 singers have been members of The Temptations, but the magic began in Detroit in 1960 when young Otis Williams carefully selected a group of five young singers who could sing and dance together. In the almost-flawless new musical, “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” Derrick Baskin, as Williams, details the story, successes and turmoil of the Temptations.
In running commentary, Williams describes the initial camaraderie between the boys and later the difficulties in trying to hold the group together as egos emerge. While the five singers learn to synchronize their movements (even more creatively than did the original ones,) Williams notes the limited choices for young men in Detroit in the 60’s. After six months in juvenile detention, he decides to pursue music. Eventually the group is formed, but, shortly afterwards, an original member is replaced, thus creating the “Classic Five” group consisting of Paul Williams (played by James Harkness,) Melvin Franklin (Jawan M. Jackson,) Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope,) and David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes) and Otis Williams.
In between the music, the show brings out individual personalities, and Ruffin and Kendricks, often the lead singers, become the most distinctive. Despite Williams’ attitude about the group being ‘brothers” and family, it becomes impossible to work together, and the group votes to oust members. Ruffin, who originally impressed them with his theatricality as well as his gruff voice, begins missing rehearsals and then demands the group be renamed featuring his name. The group sees the deleterious effects of Ruffin’s cocaine use and ousts him. Afterwards, Paul, suffering from personal problems and ill health, leaves the group; later he commits suicide. The story of the group’s personal conflicts and family relationships play to the backdrop of times, including the Black movement and the assassination of MLK. However, the music always remains paramount.
The cast is superb and the show highlights their talents. The ensemble players, including the women who play The Supremes and Tammi Terrell, are excellent, as are the young actors who replace the original members. Jeremy Pope (recently in “Choir Boy”) with his boyish charm is thrilling as he imitates Kendrick’s falsetto. With his emotionally-charged voice, Sykes is all over the stage, and Jackson makes the audience smile each time he sings in his deep bass voice.
The show seamlessly integrates the music with the story. When the group performs, it is either rehearsing, recording or performing in concert. The Temptations’ relationship with Berry Gordy as part of Motown, means the show can also comfortably incorporate other Motown hits from the Supremes and Edwin Starr. The show is a who’s who of Motown and includes Diana Ross and Tammi Terrell, as well as Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy.
Broadway hasn’t seen such a satisfactory, rousing musical hit since “Jersey Boys” which should come as no surprise given that many of the creatives who mounted “Jersey Boys” are involved in The Temptations musical as well. Once again Des McAnuff provides outstanding direction and Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is non-stop athletic. (What a workout each night!) Howell Binkley (lighting design), Steve Canyon Kennedy (sound design) and Charles Lapointe (Hair and Wigs Design) worked Ain’tToo Proud” as well as “Jersey Boys.” Why break up a winning team?
We all have our favorite Temptations songs; songs that evoke memories of special times and people. Whether it is “My Girl, “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” “”Just My Imagination,” or even one they recorded with The Supremes like “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” their music was the background of our lives. They released so many hits that It is easy to forget how many songs they had. Check out the list in The Playbill when you get your tickets for “Ain’t Too Proud.”
Although no one was dancing in the aisles at the Imperial Theatre, it was near impossible to sit still. Heads and bodies were bobbing up and down. The music will still reach you.