(L to R) Smokey Robinson (Christian Thompson), David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes), Melvin Franklin (Jared Joseph), Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin), Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope), and Paul Williams (James Harkness) practice "My Girl" in 'Ain't Too Proud' at the Berkeley Rep. (Photo: Kevin Berne)
As theater it’s awful, a desecration of the spirit and otherworldly talent that coursed through the legendary R&B group over its long history -- qualities most notably embodied in singers David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, and songwriters Smokey Robinson and Norman Whitfield.
But it is as entertainment that the musical is most worrying. High on sensationalism and low in intelligence, the almost three-hour-long production doesn't leave space for us to think, reflect, or feel in any way. Instead, we must submit to a vision of theater that would rather have an audience of trained seals than human beings interested in other human beings.
The crux of the problem is how playwright Dominique Morisseau, and director Des McAnuff imagine other people. In many ways, there is only one character in the play, and that’s Otis Williams, the last surviving member of the original Temptations. Williams serves as our narrator for the evening. His book, The Temptations, provides the basic blueprint for the script.
Everything we feel and understand in the show filters through Williams. He was the least talented of the Temptations, but blessed with a knack for moving projects along, whether assembling a group, keeping rehearsals going, or firing problematic members no matter how talented. You could say he’s a man with an iron-clad -- though rather self-serving -- thesis that he repeats to the point of insanity: The individual is always expendable and the group must be maintained at all costs.
It’s an appropriate philosophy for a minor-league talent, or as the Ruffin character rightfully puts it: “No one screams when Otis Williams takes the stage.” And right there is the germ of a tragedy: an ordinarily talented man shares the stage with astounding artists, and is simultaneously seduced by their genius and revolted by their unpredictability. He survives, but the talent doesn’t.
Ain’t Too Proud should have been a crazed, searing, R&B Amadeus. The material is rich and promising. Yet Morisseau, McAnuff, and the producers refuse to let it loose. Instead, they tie the story of the maniacal Williams and the Temptations’ music to the dead aesthetics of the biopic and the jukebox musical, not to mention the false uplift of showbiz success.
Every last moment of the group’s long history is noted, as if a play were nothing more than a particularly detailed Wikipedia entry. Each hit song is delivered with maximum effect, but with little of the subtle spirit so present in the original recordings. And the last lines (as I remember them) are something about the Temptations being the most successful R&B group in history, for which the audience dutifully cheered both nights I attended.
But the most grievous and telling sin is how the musical adopts Williams’ limited perspective and reduces the many talented and fascinating people around him to buffoonish, cartoon characters.
Motown founder Barry Gordy and singer Diana Ross, as well as Robinson, Ruffin and Kendricks, all come across as little more than children. In innumerable scenes, the creative team portrays these greats as simpletons, conniving hucksters, and angry fools.
What they’re never allowed to be is recognizably human. Even when the show expresses empathy and a sense of loss, the aesthetics are pure soap opera and eschew the bitter complexities of tragedy. When Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination breezes by, you realize how terrified the musical's creators are of letting the audience rest and stay in a moment. Why couldn't the night of the assassination be the whole piece?
None of this is the fault of the exceptionally talented performers. They’re a wonder and should be applauded for everything they bring to the stage.
What we should lament is the sheer waste of time, energy, and talent, and the way the Temptations’ music has been hijacked for what is clearly a brazen attempt at a Broadway hit. This is the only way Ain’t Too Proud makes sense — not as art, but as a money trap for Times Square tourists.
Berkeley Rep has amazing theatrical resources. The institution's stagecraft and technicians are exceptional. The talent and tools are all on display here, from the rotating sets, to the complex video projections, to the sound design worthy of a stadium concert.
But with Ain't Too Proud, it's all in the service of the theatrical equivalent of baby food laced with sugar.
'Ain’t Too Proud’ runs through Sunday, Nov. 5. For tickets and information, click here.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.