Many musical theater lovers and artists (this one included) groan at the thought of jukebox musicals. The jukebox musical is most basic of musical theater genres. The songs are recycled, usually recognizable, and presumably already hits. The characters are either tropes, or characters you already know (the original artists themselves). In essence, jukebox musicals can be guaranteed cash cows for producers exploiting nostalgia. I’ve only seen two other jukebox musicals: the movie version of Mamma Mia, and American Idiot, the Green Day musical, which also premiered at Berkeley Rep before moving to Broadway, and I was skeptical about how much I would like this one. But Ain’t Too Proud surprised me. It was a dynamic, fascinating look one of the oldest and greatest R&B/soul groups: The Temptations.
Playwright Dominique Morisseau tells The Temptations’ story from the perspective of Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin), the last surviving member of the original five. Williams narrates his experience as a kid from Texas moving to Detroit, getting in trouble again and again, before finally finding his footing in music. Once he discovers singing Williams goes through a conveyor belt of local singing groups before finally being discovered by Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse). Williams, along with Al Bryant (Jarvis B. Manning, Jr.), and Melvin Franklin (Jared Joseph) recruit Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope) and Paul Williams (James Harkness) and a new group: The Elgins is born. The quintet gets signed by Barry Gordy, but they have to change their name to the Temptations. Soon after, Al Bryant is out and David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes), a talented solo artist, is in. Smokey Robinson (Christian Thompson) becomes their songwriter, and their rise to fame begins.
And that’s just the first half of Act I. The rest of the musical continues at a dizzying pace, hitting major historical events such as the Detroit Riots, the Civil Rights Movement, and Vietnam, as well as the group’s internal struggles with racism, egos, drugs, alcohol, and families all but abandoned for life on the road. It is a lot of story for two and a half hours, but it’s worth the journey.
A voice teacher of mine once said that songs exist in musicals because when the emotion gets to be too much, you just have to sing. It’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart as an actor, singer, and lover of musical theater. Jukebox musicals don’t necessarily work in the same way. A lot of times the songs are just the original performances recreated. Ain’t Too Proud manages to do both: there are many songs that are performed as they would have been, but there are others that incorporate the plot and emotion of the characters, and I think it works well. The Temptations’ impressive live performances are half the point of this story.
The actors that make up “Classic Five” give it their all. I was continually impressed by how well they could dance while still singing beautifully. They are supported by a talented ensemble of men and women, all playing multiple roles. Of note was Rashidra Scott as Otis Williams’ teenage sweetheart Josephine who later becomes his ex-wife. Like many of the actors, Scott plays a character who grows up over the course of the musical. She believably goes from an innocent teenager, to young wife left at home with a young child, to the middle-aged ex-wife. We feel her pain and frustration at the life she ended up with, which is not the one she would have chosen.
Berkeley Rep has given us an energetic and engaging production of a bittersweet origin story. The creative team has done a fantastic job with the set and the lights. The sound seemed off at times, but it was probably just an off night for it. And of course, the band was wonderful.
If you don’t go for the acting or the production value, go for the history. The Temptations have had 24 members over the last fifty years and are still going strong. They’ve survived a rotating door of singers, changing their sound, and the passing of four of the five original members. They are truly one of a kind.
Note: AIC alum Kimille Howard was the Assistant Director for this production. Congrats Kimille!
Reasons To Go:
- #DiversityOnStage: There is only one white character
- #DiversityOnPage: This is a historical musical about a Motown group written by a black, female playwright
- Diversity behind the scenes: many members of the creative team, including the choreographer, the conductor, and the costume designer are artists of color
- Watch the five actors who play the original group members execute serious choreography while singing
- Classic hits
Who Should Go: Adults, teens
- Post-show discussions September 26 and October 5
- Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday evenings, and Sunday matinees have pre-show docent talks
- Special pricing for under 35
Themes: music, fame, racism, family, historical events
Warnings: offensive language, domestic violence, racism
Show Information: At Berkeley Rep through November 5