HOLLYWOOD—Otis Williams, the founding member of The Temptations, said, “Music: It transcends barriers,” and “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations,” deftly directed by Des McAnuff, certainly does just that, and more. This is no cover band/tribute show, this is the real thing. Dominique Morisseau’s book, a smooth flow of drama, artfully woven through the most classic catalogue of R&B music of all time, uses the songs to brilliantly move along the story of the Temptations we never knew, and their life stories and struggles.
Each key member of The Temptations through the years is given a moment: the actor, in which to shine, the character, to shine through, and their voices to rise above. Derrick Baskin, as Otis Williams, is the solid, humble anchor to Ain’t Too Proud, as he narrates and shares his observances, starting with a wry reference to the depths of their lyric, “You got a smile so bright, you coulda been a candle.” Otis is the “Runaway Child,” who managed to run from the criminal life of the streets of Detroit, once he heard the Godlike message of the Cadillacs’ “Gloria,” and find his higher calling through music. He was joined by Elbridge “Al” Bryant (the solid Jarvis B. Manning, Jr.), Melvyn Franklin (the mellifluous bass, Jawan M. Jackson), Eddie Kendricks (the crooner, Jeremy Pope) and Paul Williams (the soulful, melodious James Harkness).
They really found their groove with the tumultuous addition of the volatile David Ruffin (the robust, energetic Ephraim Sykes, with the smoothest of moves and style). Through thick and thin, Williams fought to maintain the “Collective Voice,” and equality, and in Ain’t Too Proud, all do indeed showcase their talents to beautiful effect.
The “Temps” are balanced by the distinctive voices of Jahi Kearse as Berry Gordy and Christian Thompson as Smokey Robinson, and the comedy of Joshua Morgan as their manager, Shelly Berger. The Temptations reign supreme in this show, but The Supremes also make their appearance, in a funny twist of their battles to the top of the charts. As the group’s first manager, Johnnie Mae, Taylor Symone Jackson is crisp and driven, but the one woman who steals the show from the men was Rashidra Scott, as Josephine, Otis’s long-neglected wife, when she turns it on with “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” before exiting dramatically stage left.
The choreography by Sergio Trujillo is as slick and suave as could be, with tempting moves to all 31 songs hit upon. He captures The Temptations’ signature style of the four facing in, mirroring each other’s stylized moves, with the lead singer of the moment off to the side, then, like a motorized Detroit engine, switching positions and regrouping. Playing with the location of their audience, we’d see side angles and back views, as if taking us along on their round-the-world tour. Trujillo turns the synchronized unbuttoning of jackets and checking of wristwatches into fine dance moves that articulate the way they did the things they did. Not a beat was missed in this fast-paced, well-oiled machine.
The production team reflected the Collective Voice of The Temptations, in working as a dynamic unit as well. The stage design by Robert Brill was impeccably executed, with turntables and roller tracks used to the utmost fluidity. Howell Binkley (Lighting Design), Peter Nigrini (Projection Design) and Paul Tazewell (Costume Design) all must be mentioned and commended, as should Steve Canyon Kennedy for his perfectly balanced Sound Design. And in a show which culminates with 24 Temptations on stage, the main players all flawless in their presentation, a nod must be given to Tara Rubin for casting not a weak link in the mix.
This was the first and only time I experienced a standing ovation where I thought, “This may never end…,” nor did I want it to, not for hope of an encore, but rather to extend sheer appreciation. The only thing that eventually stopped it was Baskin’s heartfelt introduction of the shining lights in the audience, none other than Otis Williams, himself, Berry Gordy, Mary Wilson of the Supremes and Shelly Berger. This being a Pre-Broadway run, I am sure Broadway will open its arms to this theatrical gem, but this is an opportunity for LA to beat NY to a #1 hit. LA is lucky to have The Temps stop here first, so see it now, and everyone, “Get Ready” to beg for more!