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The Temptations Put the “Harm” in Harmony at Berkeley Rep

Ain’t Too Proud plays all the hits—and none of the misses.

(l to r) Ephraim Sykes (David Ruffin), Jeremy Pope (Eddie Kendricks), James Harkness (Paul Williams), Derrick Baskin (Otis Williams), and Jared Joseph (Melvin Franklin) in the world premiere of Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

 

There’s a moment near the beginning of the second act of Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, the jukebox musical making its world premiere and playing through Nov. 5 at the Berkeley Rep, when the five members of the seminal Motown R&B outfit stand around a radio at center stage. Edwin Starr’s “War” blares through the tinny speakers, as the Temps, mouths agape, listen dumbstruck.

The Vietnam-era protest song, we learn—or we perhaps already knew, depending on familiarity with the politics of Motown Records—was originally written by label hitmaker Norman Whitfield as a Temptations tune. But Motown honcho Berry Gordy decided the song didn’t jibe with the group’s clean-cut image, and nixed the pairing. Whitfield ultimately gave the tune to Starr, who took it to number one in 1970. Gordy, confronted by Temptations founder Otis Williams (played by Derrick Baskin), can only shrug in hindsight. “I never said I was always right,” the legendary kingmaker offers.

It’s one of the funniest moments of the production, and in many ways it hints at what Ain't Too Proud might have been. The Temptations’ catalogue is an impressive-enough backbone upon which to build a musical. Their hits—the band recorded 31 top-20 tracks and four number one cuts—are totally irresistible, especially as sung by Baskin, Ephraim Sykes (as David Ruffin), Jared Joseph (as bass vocalist Melvin Franklin), James Harkness (as Paul Williams) and Jeremy Pope (as Eddie Kendricks). But much of Ain’t Too Proud reads as a simple chronology of the group, from street-wise toughs in Detroit singing doo-wop, to their introduction to the Motown hit-making machine, to their eventual splintering and downfall—a sort of VH1 Behind the Music as played out onstage. It’s a familiar arc that can feel curiously devoid of drama or stakes.

Much of Act I, in fact, is a kind of long, single-take action montage in which Williams recruits the band’s original lineup, gets the attention of Gordy, links up with Smokey Robinson, and reaches the top. Does that seem a little rushed? (In reality, the Temptations recorded some two dozen singles before “My Girl” became their first hit, in 1965—a fact that’s mentioned in Ain’t Too Proud, but only in passing.) The second act, in which the band, having reached the pinnacle, is pulled in five, and sometimes six, and seven, different directions, as Williams tries in vain to keep things together, offers more drama. Baskin’s rendition of the 1973 track “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (the band’s last number one hit) cuts especially deep, as his abandoned son takes his place in the chorus.

In between, there are moments that flick at the palace intrigue inside Motown—the Temptations’ jealous rivalry with the top-billed Supremes, their hesitance to go political, Gordy’s unwillingness to let Williams write the group’s material. And yet these are left mostly unexplored. (Theatergoers might do well to check out the national tours of Motown: The Musical, or Dreamgirls, for more there.)

Here, the music is left to do the heavy lifting.

Which, to be fair, is totally fine: “My Girl,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” and “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” are all superb. On that count, Ain’t Too Proud does not disappoint. Sykes, in particular, in the role of mercurial frontman David Ruffin, is pure light onstage. You could do worse than to give him—or Pope, as Kendricks—a microphone, and get out of the way.

Ain’t Too Proud knows better than to mess too much with a good thing. But, like a Temptations version of “War,” it can leave you wondering how much better it might have been.

Ain’t Too Proud, through Nov. 5, berkeleyrep.org.

 

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