By Alex Suskind
August 29, 2018 at 06:07 PM EDT
Credit: Matthew Murphy

Jukebox musicals are finicky affairs, often forced to shoehorn beloved songs into oversimplified storylines. But Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations — the expansive musical about the R&B icons, playing now at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles (and set to premiere on Broadway next spring) — manages to balance both sides of the coin, skirting the typical trappings of previous jukebox productions to bring theatergoers something intriguing, informative, and electric.

Built on a series of hefty performances, big-bang numbers, and a constantly shifting stage design, Proud is about retelling history and reliving it. Actor Derrick Baskin is the anchor here. As founding Temptation Otis Williams, he walks us through the ups and downs of the group’s decades-long history, from the highs of “My Girl” to the depths of drug addiction. Aided by equally captivating performances from Ephraim Sykes’ David Ruffin, James Harkness’s Paul Williams, Jawan M. Jackson’s Melvin Franklin, and Jeremy Pope’s Eddie Kendricks, the show has a buoyancy missing from a similar piece, Motown: The Musical. Based on Berry Gordy’s autobiography, that 2013 production attempted to cover the full breadth of the record label’s catalog, often to middling results. But Ain’t Too Proud avoids Motown‘s by-the-numbers biographical route through its powerful song-and-dance-numbers, once again reminding listeners what made the Temptations so good in the first place.

The show also shines in its transitional moments — specifically, Proud‘s ability to seamlessly flip from one song and set piece to the next faster than you can say “Diana Ross.” The stage often feels like a living, breathing accomplice to story. For example, a scene early in Act 1 has Williams (Baskin) explaining how the band spent years trying to break into the national market — at least until their 1966 appearance on the influential American Bandstand. As he discusses that moment in history, the set behind him begins to smoothly morph into a recreation of the Bandstand stage itself. Suddenly, all five members of the group have taken their places in the background, as Baskin ends his monologue and slides right up alongside them to perform an electric (albeit truncated) rendition of the show’s namesake track “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.”

With the story, viewers learn the broad strokes about the Temptations. Yes, they sang time-tested classics including “My Girl” and “The Way You Do the Things You Do”— with the book by Dominique Morisseau offering a CliffsNotes-style history of each one — but the show isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty either, focusing on the internal strife that nearly broke the group many times over. Motown head Gordy (a fierce and exacting Jahi Kearse) is a recurring presence in this production, as are other famed label figures, including Christian Thompson as Temptations songwriter and future Miracles’ frontman Smokey Robinson, and Nasia Thomas in an all-too-brief role as the late Tammi Terrell.

But including so many moving parts can mean the the important points of the Temptations and Motown history can get lost in the mix. Deaths in particular are a challenge, with those of late Temptation members Williams and Ruffin, and Terrell, relegated to brief, passing mentions, with little time for reflection. Meanwhile, the scenes of drug use can occasionally fall into parody.

But those are small misses in a production that re-introduces the pomp and circumstance of the Temptations back to the mainstream. Ain’t Too Proud is a show both superfans and Motown novices can enjoy without shame. B+