The audience enters the theater to the sight of a large model marquee, headlining the Temptations, as if the 1960s R&B group themselves are performing. Yet as the show starts, the model lifts up to reveal the group, inviting us to a view of the Temptations beyond the stage.
In the world premiere of “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations” at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, we’re introduced to the “Classic Five” Temptations as individuals through the eyes of Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin), the last surviving member of the beloved original lineup.
The narrative begins with Otis as a child, having just moved to Detroit, where he, through a series of comical persuasive techniques, eventually convinces Al Bryant (Jarvis B. Manning, Jr.), Melvin Franklin (Jared Joseph), Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope) and Paul Williams (James Harkness) to form the first iteration of the Temptations.
The band is soon plagued by power and ego conflicts, so Al is kicked out, and the “Classic Five” lineup emerges. Otis, as founder of the group, becomes the de facto leader and recruits David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes). In a testament to Ruffin’s lasting popularity, the audience explodes into cheers of “David!” as Otis introduces him as “our diamond in the Ruffin.”
Mimicking Ruffin’s appearance and smooth yet gruff voice, Sykes explodes onto the stage with flashy dance moves and mic tricks. He imbues Ruffin with a youthful excitement that immediately gains our affection, which endures even through Ruffin’s growing addictions and divisive antics.
A large portion of the musical is then dedicated to cycling through the trials and tribulations of the “Classic Five.” At times, “Ain’t Too Proud” feels more like a concert than a theater production, complete with announcers hyping up the crowd and Ruffin throwing handkerchiefs into the audience. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo creates dance numbers that are wholly reminiscent of classic Temptations moves, with additional flares that show off the talented cast.
Yet, despite all the theatrics, the musical is still grounded in narrative. The songs are embedded into the story around them — David sings “I Wish It Would Rain” while grappling with a loss and “Since I Lost My Baby” accompanies scenes of the five’s faltering relationships.
Otis frequently interrupts the songs with a rhythmical narration, which drives the story forward but sometimes feels too frequent, cutting short nostalgic songs that aren’t quite done being heard.
Following the tradition of heartbreaking second acts, the latter half of the musical evolves into an exploration of the relationship and addiction issues that followed many members to their exits from the group and eventual deaths.
It’s also where Baskin shines playing Otis, trying to hold the group and his dreams together amid Paul’s alcoholism, Marvin’s health problems, Eddie’s growing antagonism and Motown Records’ control over the group. He’s not a saint though, and Dominique Morisseau writes Otis’s part to reflect that, making his character all the more engaging.
“Ain’t Too Proud” doesn’t shy away from integrating the Temptations’ story into the larger social and political movements of the time. Portraying the Detroit race riots, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and the Vietnam War, it dives into the responsibility many felt to take a stand, followed by the frustrating pushback from Motown Records — culminating in a powerful line where Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) of Motown Records exclaims, “The music’s colorblind!” and Otis pleads, “But the world isn’t!”
It’s hard to make it through the second act without tearing up, as the fame takes a large toll on each member of the “Classic Five,” visibly changing the demeanor of those the audience has grown to love. The individual members deliver powerful exit songs as tensions between them worsen. Yet the musical is never too heavy, as it’s littered with delightful musical numbers and amusing banter.
“Ain’t Too Proud” is a fast-paced journey through the ups and downs and talents and faults of the “Classic Five” members, not only cycling through their most famous songs, but giving us genuine insight into the people behind the Temptations.
“Ain’t Too Proud” is running at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre through Oct. 22.
Contact Lynn Zhou at [email protected].