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BWW Review: The Temptations Balance Crossover Success and Racial Identity in Dominique Morisseau's AIN'T TOO PROUD

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"You never know who was hating you and singing along to your record," musses Otis Williams in playwright Dominique Morisseau's excellent bio-musical, AIN'T TOO PROUD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE TEMPTATIONS.

Ain't Too Proud
Ephraim Sykes, Jeremy Pope, Jawan M. Jackson,
James Harkness and Derrick Baskin
(Photo: Matthew Murphy)

His somber observation comes after the rising artists who will one day be named the most popular rhythm and blues act of all time are targeted in their tour bus with gunfire and racist threats as they head south in an attempt to broaden their appeal among the mainstream (white) public.

The moment comes after a scene where they make their national television debut on Dick Clark's Philadelphia-based "American Bandstand," performing the musical's title song before, as depicted by projection designer Peter Nigrini, a studio audience made up exclusively of cheerful white teenagers.

Adapted from Williams' memoir, "The Temptations," AIN'T TOO PROUD has a lot of ground to cover in regards to both the ensemble's massive success and the personal tragedies that accompanied it, but the through-line holding the drama together is the effort, guided by Motown mogul Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse), to turn five young men from Detroit into a successful crossover act, like The Supremes, even if it means sacrificing the chance to artistically express themselves as black men during the American Civil Rights Movement's most turbulent decade.

Though 24 men have performed as members of The Temptations since the group's inception, AIN'T TOO PROUD's focus is on the quintet fans refer to as The Classic Five.

Otis Williams, who, after serving six months in juvenile detention for gang activity and robbery decided to turn his young life around, is played with charming sincerity by Derrick Baskin as he looks back at his career with wisdom and humor. ("Definitely didn't think we had a hit with those lyrics. 'You got a smile so bright, you know you could have been a candle?' Ain't exactly Langston Hughes.")

As the narrator of the evening, he introduces us to sweet crooner Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope), movement and attitude specialist Paul Williams (James Harkness) and easy-going bass Melvin Franklin (funny and empathetic Jawan M. Jackson).

But what really sent the Temptations to the top was the addition of David Ruffin, whose unique combination of gruff vocals and smooth delivery, coupled with brash showmanship added unique star quality. Ephraim Sykes dynamically lives up to the challenge from the moment he snares the stage with the group's first #1 hit, "My Girl."

Ain't Too Proud

Ephraim Sykes, Jeremy Pope, Derrick Baskin,
Jawan M. Jackson and James Harkness
(Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The pressures of staying on top, the demand to present a white-friendly image and the friction between Williams' leadership and Ruffin's stardom are just the beginnings of the group's struggles, as addictions, illness and bad decisions lead to personal downfalls. For Williams, it's how life on the road led to the ruination of his marriage, intensified by the death of his son.

Director Des McAnuff, an expert at setting intimate stories against the broader backdrop of public stages, keeps the kinetic energy flowing as choreographer Sergio Trujillo finely replicates the classic movements that became as popular as the group's singles. A highlight provided by set designer Robert Brill and lighting designer Howell Binkley is how the audience's view of the proceedings gradually evolves from black and white to full color.

While the great Motown songs like "Just My Imagination," "Get Ready" and "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" may be AIN'T TOO PROUD's main attraction, Morisseau's well-crafted storytelling proves just as important as the musical memories. This is the Broadway debut for the MacArthur Genius Grant recipient whose brilliant Off-Broadway contributions have included SKELETON CREW, PIPELINE and the trio of plays making up THE DETROIT PROJECT. Perhaps the next time her work appears on Broadway, the main attraction will be the music made by this exciting playwright's words.


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