Monday, September 18, 2017

"Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations"

Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations
Dominique Morisseau (Book);
The Legendary Motown Catalogue (Music & Lyrics)

Epraim Sykes, Jeremy Pope, James Harkness, Jared Joseph & Derrick Baskin
In silver-grey suits with a slight sheen of sparkle, the five appear, fingers smartly snapping at their sides in perfectly synchronized movements.  For anyone whose eyes are closed, all it takes are just the first few smooth, silky notes of rich harmony to know that the voices singing “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day” can only be those of The Temptations, the Number One R&B group of all time.  And if these are not the real, 2017 version of The Temptations on the Berkeley Repertory Theatre stage, they are certainly five guys who capture the look, feel, and sound that have sustained this Motown quintet through its rotation of twenty-four members (to-date) for the past fifty-four years (and counting). 

For those of us in the audience for this Berkeley Rep world premiere of Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, we soon realize it is time to fasten our seat belts and get ready for the ride of our lives as the gloriously high notes of “My Girl” seep into our souls and bring smiles to every face.  What we are about to witness is a captivating, uplifting, and heart-breaking story that Dominique Morisseau has so cleverly crafted in the book of this new work, a story that will prove true the opening statement by the actor playing founder and still current member of The Temptations, Otis Williams: “We made history ... Thing about history, there is no progress without sacrifice.”  And of course, the story cannot be justly told without our hearing some twenty-five or so of the songs many of us already know by heart – perennial favorites like “Get Ready,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”  Even with the required seat belts fastened, it is difficult not to stand, sway, and saunter into the aisles to dance away the next two and a half hours.

Derrick Baskin
With giant projections of Detroit in the early 1960s flowing across the entire stage before us (projections designed by Peter Nigrini), Otis Williams and his group “The Distants” stand on the street corner singing “In the Still of the Night.”  They are just one of dozens of groups popping up in clubs, back lots, and corners all over The Motor City – all waiting to be heard and discovered by a DJ or record producer. 

One such producer, Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) has formed in 1959 what will become the top hit-making machine in Detroit, Motown Records (Four Tops, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and many more).  After his Distants dissolve, Otis collects four others to form a new group, first calling them “The Elgins” but realizing no one who will be listening to them can afford a watch by that name and will thus not pay them any attention. 

In one of the many humorous scenes of the musical, his newly collected singers brainstorm possible names while standing in a line at the urinals, finally arriving at The Temptations, “because once you hear us sing, you’ll want to do anything.”  That new name, the song “My Girl, ” and particularly David Ruffin’s sweet and incredibly high lead voice shimmering with emotion convinces Berry Gordy that The Temptations are for real. That is especially true after that first number that they record shoots immediately to Number One.  And, David’s (and thus actor Ephraim Sykes’) ability to throw a mike in the air, turn, and catch it while doing the splits helps catch Berry’s attention, too.

As the group’s story unfolds through the ongoing narrative of Otis Williams (whose book The Temptations is the basis for this script), snippets of famous number after number interject into the scenes – all sung with that same legendary sound trademarking the real Temptations.  As Melvin Franklin, Jared Joseph brings a bass voice that dives into sound caverns so deep to astound; and his Melvin is full of humorous looks and side comments to create a personality charming and totally likeable.  Like Mr Sykes’ David Ruffin, Jeremy Pope’s Eddie Kendricks sings with a range that climbs to the heavens in tones so clear to melt anyone’s heart (“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”).  David and Eddie will eventually be the first two to leave the group.  Eddie’s last recorded “Just My Imagination” is a jewel that Mr. Pope sings with such a suave voice and with so many mixed emotions emanating in both tones and facial expressions that all we can do in the audience is fight back tears.

That same excellence of vocals and expression is true for James Harkness as Paul Williams whose “For Once in My Life” breaks more audience hearts, given its beauty and message by an original Temptations member whose life is drowning in the liquor bottle.  As Paul himself admits, “It seems the bigger we get, the more we fall apart.” 

The personal cost of fame and fortune and particularly of a concert schedule that is constant and coast-to-coast (as well as international) is a major part of the story of The Temptations, expressed so sadly and beautifully in “Since I Lost My Baby” as marriages fell apart, children were left home without a dad, and even the relationships among them came to grinding halts.  As Otis says, “We were all giving up normal life to be larger than life.” 

The resulting sadness of their lives is in such contrast to the incredibly beautiful singing and the astonishingly precise choreography – neither of which ever seems in this production to falter even for one note or one step.  When David (Effraim Sykes) sings “I Wish It Would Rain,” the pain in his voice and the tears showering from his lowered face in no way diminish the heavenliness of his singing.  Even Otis (Derrick Baskin) himself suffers loss as he leads the group members to their eventual Hall of Fame honors – a sadness and regret sung with his wife, Josephine (Rashidra Scott) in a heart-touching and revealing “If You Don’t Know Me by Now.”

Much talent -- early on and up to the present -- has enriched The Temptations as members have come and gone.  Jarvis B. Manning, Jr. plays an original Temptation member, Al Bryant, whose temper and temperament leads to an early departure, even with a magnificent lead voice so well sounded by Mr. Manning.  In later years, the “Tempts” include the likes of Dennis Edwards and Richard Street, played by Caliaf St. Aubyn and E. Clayton Cornelious -- both of whom bring voices magnificent to this rendering of the group’s history.  Like the others, they, too, eventually bring issues that Otis strives to manage without destroying the sound or the reputation of the group.

Taylor Symone Jackson, Candice Marie Woods & Nasia Thomas
The Temptations’ long history parallels so many major events of the U.S. (the Civil Rights movement, the death of Dr. King, the Vietnam War, etc.); and the pushes and pulls of these milestones on the group become some of the fodder for the intrigue and importance of this production’s story.  Their close association (and rivalry for R&B’s Number One slot) with Diana Ross and the Supremes is also not overlooked as Candice Marie Woods brings both the looks and the sound to rouse this audience’s appreciation with her “You Can’t Hurry Love” and  “Baby Love.” 

Des McAnuff directs this world premiere with sensitivity, imagination, and timing that could hardly be better.  The choreography of Sergio Trujillo simply cannot be adequately described in words as performed by both Temptations singers as well as by background ensemble members.  It must be seen to be believed how so many identical movements can be done in such rapid succession by the singers and dancers as hands, arms, feet, hips, heads, and entire bodies all bend, twist, extend, and turn in exact duplication. 

The scenic design of Robert Brill moves in and out as smoothly and flawlessly as the moves of the Temptations, becoming a choreography that is fascinating without ever being distracting.  (A turntable even allows us to see the group perform from all angles -- back, front, and sideways – on the same song, a brilliant touch by both director and set designer.)  Howell Binkley’s lighting design brings the staged concerts to realistic, real-time life; and Steve Canyon Kennedy’s sound design helps us believe that those stand-up and held mikes really are the ones making the music sung fill the theatre with a clarity always stunning, whether whispered or trumpeted.

Costumes are a show unto themselves when it comes to Motown and concerts – particularly if Diana Ross and the Supremes are a part of the act.  Paul Tazewell does not disappoint us with the costumes that he has designed -- shimmering, colorful, yet always-in-best-taste of sophistication. Charles G. LaPointe has ensured that all hair styles bring back many fond memories of the past fifty years’ tonsorial styles. 

Kenny Seymour leads the fourteen-member orchestra that is worthy of its own ticketed admission price.  Kudos goes to Director McAnuff for featuring the full orchestra as the show’s encore and to Berkeley Rep for including each musician’s biography in the program!

OK, let’s just say it.  Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations as premiered by Berkeley Repertory Theatre has the Great White Way written all over its probable future.  This is a musical history whose story and music should propel it into the same outer orbits that has kept The Jersey Boys so globally popular since its 2005 debut.

Rating: 5 E

Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations continues in an extended run in world premiere through November 5, 2017 on the Roda stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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