“You only filled me with despair
By showing love that wasn’t there
Just like the desert shows a thirsty man
A green oasis where there’s only sand
You lured me into something I should have dodged”
– Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, “The Love I saw in You was Just a Mirage” (1967)
I’ve been thinking about revisiting the film Moulin Rouge!. I haven’t seen it since its original release in 2001. I wasn’t a fan. Between the irritating editing, anachronistic music, scenery-chewing performances, and the paper-thin cliché of a story, I can tell you that I am not one who thinks back fondly on Baz Luhrmann’s manic magnum opus. When internet comedian The Nostalgia Critic decided to pick the film apart scene-by-scene, I cheered him along the way (just as I did when he later did the same for the Matrix trilogy).
Yet, as much as the thought of the film makes me reflexively roll my eyes, I have to admit that it at least knew what it was. I suspect the reason its multiple Oscar nominations were met with such disdain was due to the fact that such a flashy, disposable, derivative piece of pop entertainment was up for the biggest honors the industry could bestow. I also suspect the nominations were just as much a surprise to director/co-writer Luhrmann. Though his subsequent films Australia and The Great Gatsby would be shameless in their blatant Oscar-baiting, Moulin Rouge! represented nothing more than the pure distillation of Luhrmann’s overblown aesthetic. He just wanted to have fun, and didn’t set his goals any higher than that.
The same cannot be said of Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations. One can tell that playwright Dominique Morisseau thought she was making one of the great theatrical biographies with her book for this musical. For a musical act that had a notoriously tumultuous career spanning more than five decades, Morisseau had no shortage of material from which to cull her story. And therein lies the inescapable flaw of Morisseau’s script: it tries to fit too much of the true story into one confined package.
The result is a show that may as well have been titled “The Temptations for Dummies;” said “dummies” being anyone who cares at all about the history of Black music.
Otis Williams has a habit of getting into trouble. Like most hard-headed young men, it’s only a matter of time before he finds himself behind bars. Fortunately, Otis is also a talented singer. Once he’s released from juvenile hall, he sets out to find other talented vocalists to help him make it big. Eventually, he and four friends come together to form The Temptations.
In a story spanning more than 20 years, we watch Otis and friends as they experience love, loss, and the pressures of becoming one of the most important musical acts in American history.
Watching Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations is akin to listening to student give a book report on a book they obviously didn’t read. Oh sure, the info they copied from CliffsNotes (that’s what they called Wikipedia in the pre-digital age) hits on all the major plot points, but the student is clearly unable to recite any specific dialogue or articulate any overarching themes of the story. This play clumsily attempts to cover more than two decades of history by limiting coverage of major events to one- or two-minute scenelettes that don’t teach the audience anything because it somehow expects them to be fully versed in the lives of the men who sang “My Girl”.
For instance, it takes less than 15 minutes of running time for us to breeze through the life of young Otis, who serves as our narrator, before we’re in Berry Gordy’s Hitsville, USA office. This is the scene in which we’re introduced to The Temps’ new songwriter, Smokey Robinson, who appears by swiveling in a chair like a James Bond villain. This gives the audience the impression that Robinson – a legendary singer/songwriter whose tumultuous life and career could have a story all its own – will be vital to this play’s narrative and the career of the The Temps (which, in reality, he was). Instead, Robinson merely vanishes without a trace once The Temps are assigned the also-legendary Norman Whitfield as their writer (he too later vanishes).
Similarly, the infamous “competing Temptations” incident of the ‘70s – in which two versions of the band were fighting over the name, leading to litigation – is brushed away with a simple “Why don’t we just get together?”
And when Morisseau’s script isn’t trying to overstuff itself like a tin of Spam (don’t get me started on how she shortchanges Tammi Terrell), she and her collaborators inject the play with songs that have nothing to do with The Temptations whatsoever. We know that Temps member David Ruffin was the brother of singer Jimmy Ruffin, but Jimmy’s song “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?” appears in the play apropos of nothing, giving the impression that it was a Temps song. Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes’ classic “If You Don’t know Me by Now” is similarly misused.
Using these songs to push the narrative of a jukebox musical makes sense… until you realize that they have nothing to do with the musical act being portrayed. The act in question being The Temptations, whose songs easily conveyed a variety of complex emotions, and make up one of the most recognizable musical catalogues of all time.
The hard work was already done for Morisseau and company; they still opted for the cheap route.
But what the musical lacks in narrative strength it makes up for technical prowess. The cast members are all adequate in their roles. Whereas some recent biographical musicals were determined to fool the audience into believing a simulacrum, director Des McAnuff wisely has his cast emulate their namesakes rather than imitate them. This gives the actors freedom from having to try and copy voices and specific gestures. The poor script doesn’t give the cast much with which to work in terms of building character, but they’re still enjoyable to watch.
If I had to pick a standout, it would have to be Rashidra Scott as Otis’ wife Josephine. She takes the lead during the play’s inexplicable use of “If You don’t Know Me by Now,” with both her acting and singing bringing down the house. It’s a fine example of an doing a lot with so very little.
This being Berkeley Rep’s second world premiere musical this year, this one also benefits from a top-notch tech crew. From Robert Brill’s sets and Peter Nigrini’s projections to Howell Binkley’s lights and Steve Kennedy’s soundscapes, the play is a fine piece of craftsmanship. I desperately wanted to take home Paul Tazewell’s props and admired Charles LaPointe’s wigs. And the choreography of Sergio Trujillo and Edgar Godineaux prove exactly why watching a live performance beats the CGI film.
Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention the recreation of the classic songs played throughout, arranged by Kenny Seymour. Not content to simply have any old conductor leading the talented musicians, Berkeley Rep went all out and got the legendary Harold Wheeler to serve as maestro for this show’s run. With a career that extends back before even The Temptations’ heyday, Wheeler and his musicians keep the audience on their tapping toes throughout the production.
It’s entirely possible that the Detroit-born Morisseau wrote the book for this play as a genuine tribute to these musical legends, and tried to cover so much ground so as highlight the breadth of their illustrious careers. Unfortunately, that grand theory leads to a dismissive practice on stage: by reducing the lives and careers of The Temptations to a series of bullet points, her script undermines all of their accomplishments and too easily forgives their sins.
As a jukebox musical, the show is so-so (most of the classic songs are reduced to just a few lines from their first verses); as a talent showcase, it’s pretty damn good; but as biographical narrative, it’s a complete and utter disappointment.
Ain’t too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations is scheduled to run until 5th of November at the Berkeley Rep’s Roda Stage.
The show runs 2 hrs. and 15 min. with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.