‘Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations’ thrills L.A.
from left, Derrick Baskin, Jeremy Pope, Jawan M. Jackson, Ephraim Sykes and James Harkness / Matthew Murphy

LOS ANGELES—In 2017 Billboard magazine named The Temptations the greatest R&B group of all time. But it did not take Billboard’s pronouncement for this truth to be evident. Fans—and sales and Grammys—had proved it over and over again.

The post-World War II “Great Migration” saw African Americans from the South move to the industrial north to escape the dual oppression of racism and lack of economic opportunity in search of a new life. It was in Detroit—Motown—where the five founding members of The Temptations, all children of this momentous demographic and cultural shift, met in 1963 and would became a dynamic musical force.

Before long, the legendary music producer Berry Gordy signed them on to his brand-new label, Motown Records. After releasing their first 24 songs, they finally had a hit. The story of this incredibly talented group of singers, whose numbers include “My Girl,” “Just My Imagination,” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” among many others, is the basis of Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, a new “jukebox musical” now on stage at the Ahmanson Theater in downtown Los Angeles.

The show (seen Aug. 30) traces the arc of their wildly successful career, without ignoring the trials they faced—challenges to their group identity, conflicting loyalties, the pain of separation from home and family while out on tour—while also touching on the racial and political upheavals of the 1960s.

The “jukebox” wave has hit Broadway hard, with such properties as Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys, and On Your Feet to name just a few. It’s a relatively easy and straightforward way to offer an evening of already surefire “greatest hits” strung together by a thin, connective narrative, without the troublesome necessity of composing a whole new score. It also gives a new lease on life to these songs—and a profitable source of income for, in this case, Sony/ATV Music Publishing.

The great strengths as well as the inherent weaknesses of the genre are on full view here. But in the end, Ain’t Too Proud’s audience is simply gobsmacked by the spectacular, muscular choreography, the hyperkinetic staging with a cast of about twenty, a masterfully uplifting 12-piece band, and 30 of the most tunefully snappy R&B songs drawn from the legendary Motown catalogue, redolent of an only recently bygone era. Baby boomers will certainly comprise most of the audiences, but younger folks will love it too.

The book was written by Dominique Morisseau, author of The Detroit Project trilogy of plays, one of which, Skeleton Crew, recently made a strong impression here in L.A. She is obviously the go-to writer for a Detroit-based show. Morisseau grounded her work on The Temptations, a memoir authored by Otis Williams, last surviving member of the original five, in collaboration with writer Patricia Romanowski.

The character of Otis Williams, played and sung by Derrick Baskin, is given the lion’s share of responsibility to quickly sweep the narrative along and out of the way so we can get back to the glorious music. The fast-moving show necessarily makes short shrift of the succession of small tragedies that punctuate the group’s success and give the work some emotional gravitas. The show focuses on several of the early members of the group—not all of the eventual 23 who would comprise the still-performing group—but in some cases their biographies are sketchy. The somewhat utilitarian connection to the music that is the raison d’être of the formula is a predetermined given. Williams’s announcements of developments in the group often fall flat and are studded with truisms about the awful, inevitable price of fame and success. But then, with no time for even the idea of a tear to well up in the eye, another hit tune comes along and all our troubles are, for the moment, blissfully forgotten.

Radio Black or political Black?

One part of the story that comes across exceptionally well is the depiction of the Motown system as conceived and managed by that brilliant master entrepreneur and inventor of the industrial behemoth, Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse). He devised a tight, vertically compartmentalized business model for his Motown regime, a cultural replication of the “Fordist” model for car manufacturing. He discouraged Otis Williams from songwriting, telling him to concentrate on singing. Gordy hired the musicians, arrangers, composers—Smokey Robinson (Christian Thompson) wrote most of The Temptations’ first songs—choreographers, managers, and promotion machine.

Step by step, as commissar of quality control, Gordy reached one milestone after another for the group—hit songs on radio, appearances on American Bandstand, at the famed Copacabana nightclub in New York City, an NBC Motown special on which they shared the spotlight with the Supremes. Race is at times an unnamed character in the story, for Gordy knew that success could in the end only be measured by the degree to which The Temptations were able to cross over to a white audience. Ever with his eye on the dollar, he kiboshed the group’s inclination to participate artistically in the mass anti-war movement at the time. Gordy insisted that “to be radio Black is not to be political Black.”

The musical itself rides lightly over the political: The “Times” referred to in the title include brief nods to urban unrest in Detroit and many other cities, the assassination of MLK, and the Vietnam War. “Outside the world was exploding, and inside so were we.” Several members of the group “exploded” with excessive drinking, and later by partaking in the drug epidemic that invaded American cities in the 1960s. There’s a disheartening scene of the whole crew of them, Williams excepted, freebasing crack cocaine right before a performance, one of the many temptations available to some of the commercially hottest young men in the nation while out on tour most of the year.

As the bass of the group, Melvin Franklin (or “Blue”), played by Jawan M. Jackson, says, “The bigger the hits the more we fall apart.” Drugs could anesthetize the pain—the personal heartaches, disconnectedness from homes and loved ones, but perhaps in a larger sense, the pain of being Black in America. Was this part of the CIA-inspired strategy at the time to flood the Black community with drugs?

What might have given the play more depth was deeper exposition of the group’s creative process. How did the exalted art of their dance moves and music come to be? “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” became one of the group’s big surprise hits, winning a  Grammy, but they approached it initially with profound reservations. That story is amusing to follow, suggesting that other songs may also have had a stageworthy background. It would have been edifying to see more of how the songs developed musically and harmonically, to understand the creative process, and to experience the group in rehearsal as scaffolding for a deeper appreciation of the individual characters and as new members are added with the expected adjustments and tensions.

Among the other starring roles are Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendricks, with his high-flying, audience-wowing falsetto, Ephraim Sykes as lead singer David Ruffin of sexy voice and delightful rubberlegs physicality, whose drug use, sense of entitlement and attitude of resentment forced the group to replace him. Paul Williams, one of the first group members, also felled by addiction, is played by James Harkness. New lead singer Norman Whitfield is played by Jarvis B. Manning, Jr..

Williams’s wife Josephine is played by the knockout Rashidra Scott, and the Supremes (Diana Ross, Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson) are sung by Candice Marie Woods, Nasia Thomas and Taylor Symone Jackson respectively.

Two-time Tony Award-winning director Des McAnuff helms the show. He also directed Jersey Boys and The Who’s Tommy. In Robert Brill’s scenic design, a conveyor belt moving sidewalk on stage is a useful device: It smoothly introduces and removes characters from the stage, while also seeming to magically quicken the dance steps they perform on it. A turntable in the center of the stage also gets a healthy workout: Every time a fly descends with a wall or theatre façade depicting a new prestigious venue for The Temptations, we can be sure that when it goes up again the stage will be filled with actors and props in a new setting.

Sergio Trujillo—who also did Jersey Boys—created the choreography, with its timeless, iconically seductive moves. Paul Tazewell’s costumes kept the cast dressed in natty, flashy outfits.

The entire production—headed for Broadway, as if you didn’t guess—is dynamic and resonant of a time that isn’t entirely past. Despite any criticism of the narrative armature that holds up the show, it is governed by deep respect accorded to the music. The indisputable talent of both the actual Temptations and the performers in Ain’t Too Proud is indescribably exhilarating.

Ain’t Too Proud continues through September 30 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles 90012.  Tickets are available by calling (213) 972-4400, online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, or by visiting the Center Theatre Group Box Office located at the Ahmanson.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

Dale Greenfield
Dale Greenfield

Dale Greenfield is a Licensed Marriage Family and Child Therapist (LMFT), University Lecturer on The Psychology and Neuroscience of Film, and writes reviews for People's World and LA Progressive.

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