As befits a show about the Temptations, the most infectiously rhythmic of chart-topping R&B groups, “Ain’t Too Proud” keeps time in style. I don’t mean that solely in terms of a beat that makes you feel like dancing.
Of course, as you watch this latest entry in Broadway’s ever-expanding jukebox musical sweepstakes, you will no doubt find your legs twitching, as if from muscle memory. That’s the urge being translated with such sublime grace by those five natty men on the stage, Platonic ideals of stepping high and looking fine.
But it is also true that time, unforgiving and unstoppable, is cannily presented as the shaping element in “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” which opened on Thursday under the shrewd direction of Des McAnuff, with sensational choreography by Sergio Trujillo. As the show charts the changing fortunes of men who became synonymous with Motown’s glory days, the years keep moving forward with the relentlessness of a conveyor belt in an auto-making assembly line.
[Read about Cholly Atkins, the real-life choreographer for the Temptations.]
It’s enough to wear a strong man down. And more than any of the (oh so many) pop-songbook shows that have befallen Broadway since the Abba-spouting behemoth “Mamma Mia!” opened in 2001, “Ain’t Too Proud” is a story of attrition. We watch as the core lineup of the original Temptations is whittled down to the last man standing. That’s the group’s leader and show’s narrator, Otis Williams, played with anchoring gravity by Derrick Baskin.
Ultimately, though, it’s the music that’s the sole survivor. And that’s what’s being celebrated here — the collective miracle of a blissfully silken sound forged out of clashing egos, many misfires and life-wrecking hard work into numbers that keep playing in our memories.
While honoring all the expected biomusical clichés, which include rolling out its subjects’ greatest hits in brisk and sometimes too fragmented succession, this production refreshingly emphasizes the improbable triumph of rough, combustible parts assembled into glistening smoothness.
Dominique Morisseau, who wrote the show’s book, is the gifted author of a cycle of smart, tough-minded plays based in her native Detroit, where much of “Ain’t Too Proud” is also set. Her script, adapted from Otis Williams’s 1988 memoir, reminds us that the Detroit-based Motown Records — the crossover label run by Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) that revolutionized pop music — was indeed a factory of sorts, one that rigorously processed and refined raw talent for mass consumption.
This means that unlike such current fare as “Beautiful” (about Carole King), and “The Cher Show,” “Ain’t Too Proud” isn’t focused on a single star, with the attendant by-the-numbers psychology. Instead, we have a study in group dynamics, in which the balance shifts in ways big and small, as the component parts keep changing.
As Otis observes early on, after the firing of the group’s original lead singer, Al Bryant (Jarvis B. Manning Jr.), “Sometimes Temp stood for temporary.” This sense of interchangeability (and expendability) is given witty visual life in the second act, when a cavalcade of identically dressed Temptations, past and present fills the front of the stage. (Paul Tazewell did the delicious costumes.)
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Not that the audience is ever likely to confuse one Temp for another. The five-member group that most people know as the Temptations is embodied with piquantly detailed individuality by charismatic, supple-voiced actors who astutely convey the imbalanced equations of ego and accommodation in their characters.
They are, in addition to Mr. Baskin, James Harkness (as Paul Williams), Jawan M. Jackson (as a Melvin Franklin who talks as well as sings in a thundering bass), Jeremy Pope (late of “Choir Boy,” who here plays Eddie Kendricks) and a smoking hot Ephraim Sykes (as David Ruffin). We meet them first as a team, singing “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” the Temptations hit from 1964, before Otis shepherds us back to the group’s starting point.
That segue follows the formula established by “Jersey Boys,” the long-running Broadway hit from 2005 about the Four Seasons, also directed by Mr. McAnuff and generally considered the gold standard for jukebox biographies. (It has been reincarnated Off Broadway at New World Stages.) Like “Jersey Boys,” “Ain’t Too Proud” rapidly follows a fairly straightforward timeline through some pretty rough terrain.
So in addition to seeing the Temps on (and back) stage, and in the recording studio — with mentors that include Smokey Robinson (Christian Thompson) and Norman Whitfield (Mr. Manning) — we are given quick-sketch glimpses of the grim personal and social problems that derail them. (Robert Brill’s set, lighted by Howell Binkley with projections by Peter Nigrini, neatly balances grit and glamour throughout.)
Some of these synoptic moments can seem bizarrely perfunctory, as in a crack-smoking sequence and, worse, a party scene that portrays Ruffin’s abusive relationship with the singer Tammi Terrell (Nasia Thomas). And the attempts to portray the dawning social consciences of the singers — who became famous at the height of the civil rights movement — can feel strained. (On the other hand, I enjoyed the brief encounters with the women in the men’s lives, including the Supremes, led by Candice Marie Woods in a pitch-perfect evocation of Diana Ross, and Rashidra Scott makes the most of her onstage time as Otis’s neglected wife, Josephine.)
Mercifully, the show mostly avoids the usual jukebox pitfall of jimmying in songs to reflect the plot in literal ways. Instead, the musical numbers generally register as a rippling, liquid mirror of societal and personal flux, especially in the ways they show the Temptations’ sound being calibrated to suit a mainstream (i.e., white) audience.
As for the performance of those songs, orchestrated by Harold Wheeler with musical direction and arrangements by Kenny Seymour, they’re pretty close to perfection. They’re not entirely mimetic, which is a relief.
These Temps (whose later additional members are ably incarnated by Saint Aubyn, E. Clayton Cornelious and Mr. Thompson) sound enough like their prototypes to satisfy hard-core fans. But the fabulous standards, which include “Cloud Nine” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” have been reimagined with a heightened Broadway flair that stops short of pandering.
This is especially true of the sinuous synchronicity of Mr. Trujillo’s choreography, in which everyone is often doing the same moves, but with a subtle, stylish edge that sets each member apart. (Or not so subtle, though still highly stylish, in the case of Mr. Sykes’s spectacular scissor splits.) You’re always aware of the component parts in this well-oiled music machine.
As its title suggests, “Ain’t Too Proud” promotes the virtue of humility, at least when it comes to keeping a team together. But it also makes sure that these men never become ciphers. The happy paradox of this group portrait is that everybody gets to be a star.