The Temptations soared to fame in the 1960s and 70s with their smooth ballads and their graceful slides and pivots. No group had ever looked and sounded like those five men from Detroit. I wish choreographer Sergio Trujillo had trusted their unique style and not Broadway-ized their dance numbers for Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations at the Imperial Theatre. I sat there thinking, Who are these guys?
I fell in love with The Temptations when I was a child. We used to line dance to their records at my suburban Baltimore parochial school. They were the epitome of cool and class, two things Ain't Too Proud is missing. Add to that a weak book by Dominique Morisseau and we've got another limp biographical jukebox musical.
A danger in these kinds of shows is that fans who loved the songs when they were new will tune out the current singers and hear the original performers in their memories. That's what I did for much of the show, which is directed unimaginatively by Des McAnuff.
This is not to say the cast, headed by Derrick Baskin as Otis Williams, The Temptations' founder, isn't capable. They are. But The Temptations can't be improved upon. Watching the show made me want to go back in time to when Motown was changing music and we were all singing and dancing along. (The script is based on Williams' 1988 memoir.)
The best of these bio jukeboxes remains Jersey Boys. The singers' lives were fully developed and I left the theatre feeling I knew them. Not so in Ain't Too Proud. Jealousy, drug addiction, partner abuse, the Civil Rights Movement all surface but are whisked away before they can leave an impact. The show produces about as much emotional power as reading Wikipedia. The songs are wonderful but the magic of The Temptations' performance is missing.
The five men who portray them give it their best. In addition to Baskin, the group is represented by James Harkness as Paul Williams, Jawan M. Jackson as the great bass voice of Melvin Franklin, Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendricks and Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin, the group's "diamond in the Ruffin" and extraordinary lead singer until his drug-addled ego got him fired. As we know, he later died of a drug overdose.
Fame proved difficult to handle. The infighting is set against historical events, such as Dr. King's assassination. I would have liked more of that. The tumult of that era is alluded to but not woven deeply into the script.
"The outside world was exploding and inside so were we," says Williams in his role as Ain't Too Proud's narrator.
In spite of all their troubles, their unique sound and moves earned them the distinction of being the No. 1 group in the history of R&B.
As disappointing as this show is, nothing that features Motown songs can be all bad. This one offers nearly 30 hits. They will bring back memories. But enough with these jukebox musicals. Let's have some original music with a compelling book. That would be a welcome return to the old days.