Berkeley Rep appears set to send another world-premiere hit to Broadway (the short-lived Amelie musical notwithstanding) with Ain't Too Proud, a biographical jukebox musical that traces the history of famed Motown quintet The Temptations. As with any biographical musical about musicians (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is one recent example), the greatest limitation is always going to be the fact that real life doesn't tend to provide a tidy plot, and that is certainly an obstacle with Ain't Too Proud, which opened last night after a couple weeks of previews. But as with hit jukebox musicals like Beautiful, Mamma Mia, and Jersey Boys, none of that really matters, because everyone is mostly there to hum along to beloved old songs, and be comforted by the recreation of music so familiar and dear.
I am not the target audience of Ain't Too Proud, and I found myself wishing that my pop-music-loving mother were there for the premiere last night, because there were many in the audience in her demographic who basically spent the whole evening swooning with each song snippet as if it were coming on the radio by surprise.
And this musical, which has been many years in the making and is based on the book about the group by its last remaining original member, Otis Williams, is buoyed by those songs 31 of which pop up in the show, though very few are sung through in their entirety, and some only as 30-second bits (possibly for licensing reasons as much as for brevity, since one of the last obstacles to staging this show was getting approval to use the music from Sony).
At the show's center is Williams himself, played here by Difficult People's Derrick Baskin, who narrates the "life and times" of The Temptations compellingly, but from an arguably biased perspective none of the other four "classic" Temps lived to tell their own stories, after all, and as with any musical group, thee's always going to be multiple angles on conflict. Williams was the founding member of the group, which began life as Otis Williams and The Distants and then briefly sang as The Elgins before getting discovered by Motown's Berry Gordy and choosing the name The Temptations. And Williams spent his career as the big brother/father figure in the group, hiring and firing a couple of lead singers over the course of three decades the "classic" being David Ruffin (played by the vocally brilliant Ephraim Sykes, who recently had a role in NBC's Hairspray Live!). Williams rarely ever sang lead himself, though, preferring to be the glue of the group and a backup baritone, and thus he makes for a good narrator though there are moments throughout the show, especially surrounding drug use by other members of the group, when you have to ask yourself whether Williams's version of events isn't scrubbed a bit to make himself look more innocent.
We learn fun background anecdotes about some of the hits that launched The Temptations to widespread "crossover" fame in the 1960s and 70s. For instance, we learn that in 1966 Gordy told songwriter Norman Whitfield that he could write the next song for the Temps if their current single, "Get Ready," written by Smokey Robinson, failed to chart high enough. When the song failed to break the number one, Whitfield stepped in and wrote "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," which the band didn't like very much, but which hit #13 on the Billboard Pop Chart and went to #1 on the R&B Chart, cementing Whitfield as the Temps' main writer for years to come.
But getting back to the music numbers themselves, this is a show where the audience breaks into spontaneous cheers constantly as the talented cast belts out songs like "Shout," "The Way You Do The Things You Do," and "You Can't Hurry Love" the latter of which, of course, is sung by The Supremes, played here by Nasia Thomas, Esther Antoine, and Candice Marie Woods as Diana Ross.
A highlight in Act 1 comes from the major pipes of Rashidra Scott as Williams's wife Josephine, who brings down the house with literally just a few bars of "If You Don't Know Me By Now."
The performers playing the Temps, which also include the talents of James Harness as Paul Williams, Jared Joseph as bass Melvin Franklin, and Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendricks, have the groups' signature moves down (with the help of choreographer Sergio Trujillo), and Sykes especially, as Ruffin, gets to show off with some well practiced, James Brown-esque splits and mic tosses.
All told, this is an elaborately staged, easy to watch piece of musical theater that suffers only from its obligation to the truth unavoidably, the story wraps up with the deaths of four of the Temps, but with the magic of theater, they all reunite for one last number.
Chances are, your enjoyment of this show will be proportionate with your age, but it's just about impossible not to know and love the musical oeuvre of the Temptations, no matter when you were born. This is music that every American grew up on, assuming they turned on the radio once or twice.
Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations plays through October 22. Find tickets here.