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Review: 'Ain't Too Proud,' the Broadway-bound musical about the Temptations: Sensational music, scattershot storytelling

Review: 'Ain't Too Proud,' the Broadway-bound musical about the Temptations: Sensational music, scattershot storytelling
Jawan M. Jackson, from left, James Harkness, Jeremy Pope, Derrick Baskin and Ephraim Sykes in "Ain't Too Proud" at the Ahmanson Theatre. (Doug Hamilton)

When “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations,” the Broadway-bound jukebox musical, is in motion, it’s a force almost as irresistible as any of the powerhouse R&B band’s greatest hits.

That list includes such everlasting records as “My Girl,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” and, of course, the song that gave the show its title, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.”

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The show, which opened Friday at the Ahmanson Theatre under the propulsive direction of Des McAnuff, is better at conveying the band’s story through the music than through Dominique Morisseau’s book. The narrative is loose and conventional, but nothing can get in the way of the production’s vibrancy when the actors are grooving at full tilt.

Motown being the incubator of the Temptations’ fame, the musical quite naturally involves other artists from the storied Detroit record label. Smokey Robinson, whose songwriting talent helped launch the Temptations, and the Supremes, whose towering success set the bar for all would-be recording kings and queens, contribute to the pop-soul gold mine.

It’s never possible to exactly duplicate the singular sound of a classic group. The stars of McAnuff’s production encompass the diverse blend of voices that set the Temptations apart. Jawan M. Jackson, who plays Melvin Franklin, possesses a bass almost as resonantly subterranean and Jeremy Pope, who plays Eddie Kendricks, has many of the same astonishing falsetto-style capabilities.

But acoustical challenges at the Ahmanson smudge the harmonies. At times Friday it felt as though the production were still testing sound levels.

Ephraim Sykes, who is so light on his feet he practically levitates in the role of David Ruffin, the band member whose seductive voice and slick moves propelled the Temptations to the top of the charts, started strong but ended vocally ragged. This may have been intended to reflect the character’s descent into drugs and bitterness, but it was odd hearing references to the character’s irreplaceable talent as the singing grew frayed.

What the performers do manage to replicate to perfection is the energy of the music — the attack, the smoothness, the masculine cool. (Sykes in this regard is truly irreplaceable.) “Ain’t Too Proud” concentrates the theatrical experience of seeing the Temptations in concert. When the men are snapping, swaying and slicing the air with their limbs, there is no defense. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography translates the yearning and drive of band members into pure dynamism.

Derrick Baskin anchors the show in the crucial role of Otis Williams, the founder and last surviving original band member. He is our appealingly earnest guide for the Temptations’ story, which has been derived by Morisseau from the memoir about the group Williams wrote with Patricia Romanowski entitled “The Temptations.”

Ephraim Sykes in "Ain't Too Proud"
Ephraim Sykes in "Ain't Too Proud" (Doug Hamilton)

The show’s book is at its most effective when it’s least conspicuous. McAnuff, who knows his way around jukebox musicals, having directed the Tony-winning “Jersey Boys,” absorbs as much of the narrative as possible into musical activity.

The stage, especially in the early going, seems to be almost in kaleidoscopic motion. Peter Nigrini’s projection design sustains a hustling tempo. Howell Binkley’s lighting electrifies the entire auditorium with theatrical flash.

One of the dramatic challenges of a biographical musical about a band that continually refreshed its personnel is figuring out whose story to concentrate on. Morisseau, a dramatist with a keen sociopolitical imagination (she’s the author of the three-play cycle “The Detroit Project,” which includes “Skeleton Crew,” recently produced at the Geffen Playhouse), tries somewhat unwisely to cover the gamut.

The struggle to form a band and develop a distinctive sound and image is followed by the strain of success. “The pressure of fame and relationships,” Otis tells us in a line that could well have been cut, was “starting to show a crack.” He soon fills us in on David’s coke habit, sounding like a writer for VH1’s “Behind the Music,” “David was getting addicted to the worst drug of all: the spotlight.” The personal problems, while serious and deserving of sympathy, have a formulaic ring.

Enlarging the musical’s scope are issues such as segregation in the South, urban unrest and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But the treatment is largely perfunctory, a series of bullet points. As the Vietnam War ignites protest music, Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) is reluctant to have his “crossover group” enter the fray.

Stories about individual songs —such as the band’s initial bewilderment over “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” a “funkadelic trip” with an endless intro that became to the group’s surprise a monster, Grammy-winning hit — are more engaging than the tales of crackups and dissolution. One exception to this rule is the way David, after getting expelled from the group, keeps springing up at concerts, a mad jack-in-the-box determined to get back in the act.

Artistic soul searching exacerbates conflicts that have long been festering over money, control and professional conduct. The relationships among the band members are carefully outlined, but there isn’t sufficient time with so many characters to develop deep emotional bonds.

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Otis quarrels continually with strung-out David and hot-tempered Eddie, has to confront Paul Williams (James Harkness) about his debilitating drinking and worries that Melvin will call it quits after he become stricken with arthritis. As founding members are moved out on a conveyor belt, new ones, such as Dennis Edwards (Saint Aubyn), are brought in.

“Whenever your life is shaky, fame makes it worse,” Otis observes in another moment of hackneyed moralizing Morisseau should have resisted. Sometimes the selection of songs doesn’t precisely match the dramatic context. It’s not clear why Otis’ wife, Josephine (Rashidra Scott), sings “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” as she prepares to leave her all-too-absent husband, but it’s one of the vocal highlights of the show. Likewise, it’s confounding why Paul, just before his tragic final exit, serenades us with “For Once In My Life,” but it at least offers him a moment to shine on his own.

The music of the Go-Go’s has landed on Broadway this summer and Cher’s will be resounding in the late fall. The Temptations’ catalog rivals any in the history of pop, soul and R&B, so it’s only fitting that this music gets to strut its sensational stuff on stage.

At the curtain call at Friday’s opening, Baskin saluted a few of the special guests in the audience, including Motown founder Berry Gordy and the man of the hour himself, Otis Williams. These stylish, larger-than-life gentlemen seemed from a distance more intriguingly complex than their broadly drawn fictional counterparts. But it’s the showmanship, not the story, that makes “Ain’t Too Proud” an entertaining addition to the admittedly lesser jukebox genre.

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♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations’

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions). Ends Sept. 30

Tickets: $30-$160 (subject to change)

Information: (213) 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission)

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