On press night of Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations, an impassioned cry pierced a moment between flaming montages of the 1967 Detroit riot and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968. During the song “I’m Losing You,” a woman in the audience spontaneously shouted “Oh, Jesus!” The gesture felt holy, because to take in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s astounding new musical about the lives and careers of The Temptations is tantamount to a religious experience.
The dialogue of this Broadway-bound musical compares R&B to church on many occasions. When a young Otis Williams hears The Cadillacs perform upon his release from juvenile detention, and realizes his life’s purpose, he says “It was like God was talking to me. Singing is to be my salvation.” Then, after Williams forms a new singing group that tops the R&B charts with “My Girl,” singer David Ruffin calls the moment the “first time in my life I feel like things are ordered, like God is real.” The tightly controlled hit machine that produced so many ethereal love songs despite personal and political conflicts is the engine of this musical.
To order The Temptations’ story takes ambition: widely considered the greatest R&B group of all time, the group’s career spans 55 years, 42 Top Ten Hits, 14 #1 songs, three Grammys, and 24 group members. But Dominique Morisseau’s (Skeleton Crew, Paradise Blue, Detroit ’67) book, based on the memoir of Otis Williams, more than does the story justice by following the through-line of the group’s founding member. The musical pivots on Williams as the sole survivor and backbone of the original “Classic Five” Temptations as he recounts for the audience the triumphs and tragedies of his friends, like Horatio for Hamlet. As Williams, Derrick Baskin transitions from high-energy singing and dancing in every scene to steady narration without missing a beat, a true testament to his stamina as a performer. Fans of Hulu’s Difficult People may remember Baskin’s experience as Nate playing the rock of a chosen family with larger-than-life personalities. During one leadership spat in the musical, a fame-intoxicated David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes) derides that no one could pick Williams out of a lineup, but Baskin centers an evening of incredible entertainment on an engaging and thoughtful story.
With the road map of Morisseau’s book and Des McAnuff’s deft direction, a brilliant cast of performers takes the audience on tour from Detroit auditions to national and international marquee headlines. Perfectly executed song and dance numbers amplify leading emotions in each scene, from the heartache of a departing band member in the breakup song “I’m Losing You,” to grief at a funeral during “I Wish It Would Rain,” to frustrations over drug use in “Cloud Nine.”
Morriseau’s writing also weaves plenty of humor into the story. In one of the funniest scenes, Motown Records switches the group’s songwriter, so the band tries to sink its next song in protest with an angry recording of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Watching the casts’ movements do a 180 after the song tops the charts elicits huge laughs.
Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations
closes July 22, 2018
Details and tickets
In particular, the comedic instincts of Jawan M. Jackson as Melvin Franklin, the bass singer of the group, frequently steal the show. Jackson started his career as a radio personality in Detroit, and has since starred as Melvin Franklin in Motown: The Musical and appeared on Netflix’s series The Get Down. His goofy facial expressions and iconic booming voice lift every scene.
In this production, the stage acts almost as a character itself. It slides performers on and off as the band frequently changes lineup; zips in sets for micro-scenes at parties; and rotates the audience perspective to the wings as the band performs in many countries by facing different directions of the theater.
The rotating dias also provides David Ruffin a smooth, stylistic entrance that establishes him as a star showman. As an extremely talented and volatile frontman, Ephraim Sykes captivates with splits and stunts that take Olivier-Award-winning Sergio Trujillo’s rapturous choreography to the next level.
Robert Brill has worked wonders with scenic design to feature authentic furniture, microphones, and T.V. cameras that, combined with artful location projections and decade-appropriate textiles, instantly root the audience in time and place. A massive glowing Motown logo matches the grand acting talent of Jahi Kearse as musical visionary Berry Gordy, and Kearsee exudes executive control through every syllable, movement, immaculate office decoration, and wardrobe piece. Furthermore, the changes in fabric, colors, and unity or discord of Paul Tazewell’s stunning costumes always convey key details about the emotional state of each band member.
Although every member of The Temptations gets a full back story and solo to show off their powerful pipes, the female characters disappointingly have less three-dimensional lives; in this musical, women mostly orbit the men or influence them offstage. Despite their limited stage time, the female cast members leave strong impressions. Rashidra Scott brings the house down as Williams’ exasperated wife Josephine who channels Jean Carn while singing “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” The Supremes also appear at multiple points in the musical to portray their rivalry with The Temptations for the top spot in R&B, and the women who embody them dazzle in the duet “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” Short-lived appearances from characters like Mama Rose Franklin and Tammi Terrell will leave you begging for more.
Another point that could be improved is the depth of sorrow in the musical. With the exception of a moving scene in complete silence during the final moments of the play, many of the tragedies that befall the singers fail to penetrate the joyous highs of the live-orchestra concert.
The band’s make-or-break break mission to obtain crossover status between Black and white audiences drives the musical. “Wide appeal” and “white appeal” contrast through huge projections of white children gazing at human-sized, adult Black performers. A confrontation with violent racism brings forth the line “You never knew who was hating you and also singing along to your record.” Berry Gordy justifies his iron grip on the band’s gentle image to the point of censoring their desire to protest with aphorisms like “T.V. Black; Radio Black; Not the same as Political Black.” And Williams confronts the audience directly with the question, “All progress requires a little sacrifice, right?”
Perhaps, in order to portray Black excellence in the heart of Washington, D.C. in 2018, sacrifices in tone still persist. Maybe it takes happy love songs like “My Girl” to hold the attention of diverse audiences on 13 Black men, five Black women, and one white man telling true stories of Black artists; to stage a funeral for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through kneeling like Colin Kaepernick; to project Detroit Free Press headlines in response to President Lyndon B. Johnson setting weapons of war against Black citizens. Perhaps even The Temptations, the most successful R&B group in history, are still crossing over.
Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations Book by Dominique Morisseau | Music and lyrics from The Legendary Motown Catalog | Directed by Des McAnuff | Cast: Derrick Baskin as Otis Williams, James Harkness as Paul Williams, Jawan M. Jackson as Melvin Franklin, Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendricks, Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin. Featuring Esther Antoine, Shawn Bowers, E. Clayton Cornelious, Rodney Earl Jackson Jr., Taylor Symone Jackson, Jahi Kearse, Jarvis B. Manning Jr., Joshua Morgan, Caliaf St. Aubyn, Rashidra Scott, Nasia Thomas, Christian Thompson, Curtis Wiley, and Candice Marie Woods. Orchestrations by Harold Wheeler | Music direction & arrangements by Kenny Seymour | Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo | Scenic design by Robert Brill | Costume design by Paul Tazewell | Lighting design by Howell Binkley | Sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy | Projection design by Peter Nigrini | Hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe | Fight direction by Steve Rankin | Produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre | Presented by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts | Reviewed by Kate Colwell.