At this point it is understandable and even expected, to be skeptical of jukebox musicals, especially ones that tell the story of an artist or group. It seems as if every new musical of this type is trying to recreate the magic of “Jersey Boys.” Sadly, most of these have fallen flat, feeling like a Wikipedia life summary set to a Spotify playlist. But thankfully “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” which opened March 21st at the Imperial Theatre, does not fall into the bad patterns of some of the recent bio-jukeboxes.
Part of what makes “Ain’t Too Proud” work is the Temptations. First, they are a group, which means the musical did not have to force a psychological arc of growth on a single protagonist. The group has also had quite a bit of a drama and flux within its members — as they say during the musical “Temp sometimes stood for temporary” — which of course helps move the show along.
Second, the Temptations were an extremely important group in the history of music and race in America, so a musical about them already has a built-in historical weight. As the most popular group of Motown and an important force in the integration of music, they have a story that deserves to be told. The group’s connection with the civil rights movement is poignantly explored in the second act, which does great justice to the importance and significance of the Temptations.
The book by Dominique Morisseau does a good job hitting all the highlights without feeling like it is covering too much too quickly. It also does not exclusively focus on romance, which is a refreshing change for bio-jukeboxes. As the director, Des McAnuff seems to hit just the right note of nostalgia, and if this ever feels like a tribute band concert, at least it is one that’s rather polished. This is also thanks in part to the wonderful choreography of Sergio Trujillo, which replicates exactly what makes groups from the 60s so memorable.
Although there are several changes in the membership of the Temptations and some minor characters that come in and out (girlfriends, wives, children, managers, and even the Supremes), the show is mostly carried by Derrick Baskin as Otis Williams, James Harkness as Paul Williams, Jawan M. Jackson as Melvin Franklin, Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendricks, and Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin, all of whom do excellent jobs. As the founder and only continuous member, Otis is the core of the show, and Baskin really is the heart of the musical. Jeremy Pope is as talented as he is hilarious as he is impressive: remarkably, this is second Broadway show this season (he starred in “Choir Boy” with MTC).
The design is mostly quite effective: Robert Brill’s sets are dynamic and flexible and Paul Tazewell’s costumes recreate the never-ending sea of matching Temptations suits, but the projections by Peter Nigrini, which were usually text-based, often felt heavy-handed and unnecessary, especially when they were song lyrics or titles.
As a musical, “Ain’t Too Proud” isn’t anything special per se, but as a jukebox, it is rather good, certainly better than most. Plus, it’s hard to resist some of their classic hits like “Baby Love,” “My Girl,” “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” and “Shout” when they are expertly sung by this talented cast. “Ain’t Too Proud” is perfect for a fun night of well-performed nostalgia, with some history on the side.