Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations is about survival. In the near-sixty years since the band first formed, The Temptations have provided the soundtrack to integration, to Vietnam protest, even to the presidency of Barack Obama. They have gone through twenty-four members. Successive generations of musicians have lived through entire careers—indeed, entire lives—and The Temptations are still touring, albeit with only one member of the “Classic Five.”
At least according to Ain’t Too Proud, this is largely the work of bandleader Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin) and bass Melvin “Blue” Franklin (Jawan M. Jackson), who provided the glue of sobriety and modesty to counteract more volatile personalities like frontman David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes) and tenor Eddie Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope). (It should be noted that the jukebox musical is based on Williams’ memoir.) Ruffins, the breakout lead on “My Girl,” gets heavy into cocaine and the flattery of sycophants, and Kendricks is furious when Williams convinces the others to kick him out. Williams consistently follows the advice of Motown executive Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) and tries to navigate the band toward mainstreaming choices, toward crossover success. The very existence of this musical is proof that he prevailed.
It’s all pretty familiar showbiz rise-and-fall material—or in this case, rise and plateau—and yet there’s something about Ain’t Too Proud that distinguishes it from most jukebox musicals. All of the leads have been with the show since June, and there is a real sense of familiarity among the actors, of hard-won love, of having lived, fought, and performed with one another. Perhaps because the bass, with less resonance, is never the showboat part, Blue is appropriately quieter than most of his bandmates. When he does speak, Jackson often uses his exquisite voice for comic effect. It arrests the room; the effect is disarming and usually followed by a knowing grin. Both Pope, who is no stranger to singers with outsized egos, and Sykes play it straight; there are no winks and nods to the audience about their outlandish behavior, and the result is funnier and more convincing. All have voices that are worth the price of admission alone.
Admittedly, it’s not a perfect musical. Ruffins’ abuse of Tammi Tarrell (Nasia Thomas) in particular is addressed but minimized. Still, the songs have lost none of their power, and with an audience basking in nostalgia, who would turn down the chance to listen to The Temptations for a few hours or so?
Ain’t Too Proud is on sale through November 29th at the Imperial Theatre. 249 W. 45th Street New York, NY. 2 hours 30 minutes. One intermission.