The first notes of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” draw a collective sigh from audiences at the Imperial Theatre. A young woman with a bassinet is lamenting the man who’s abandoned her. The man is Otis Williams (played by Derrick Baskin), the sole surviving member of the original Temptations and narrator of Ain’t Too Proud, the latest nostalgia-fueled jukebox to take aim at Broadway purse strings by way of its heartstrings.
But the number marks one of the bio-musical’s few emotional peaks shored up by real feeling (with no small thanks to stunning vocals from Rashidra Scott). Otis’ first wife, whom he impregnates then leaves behind for the road, also happens to have a point. If we haven’t gotten to know Otis or his fellow OG Temptations by nearly halfway through the show, chances are we’re out of luck.
The Life and Times of The Temptations, Ain’t Too Proud’s full title, turns out to be a sort of false promise. In Otis’ narration, the lives of the men behind the voices are generally reduced to one or two digestible traits. Paul (James Harkness) winds up hooked on the bottle; Barrel-voiced Melvin (Jawan M. Jackson) is nicknamed “blue” because of his favorite color. Inner lives are given only cursory glimpses, as much of the book by Dominique Morisseau gets caught up documenting the group’s shuffling roster of members. (There have been 24, Otis tells us, between the group’s founding and today, about a third of which are accounted for here.)
To a certain extent, this abbreviation and rotation of characters is integral to understanding who the Temptations are, and the tensions inherent to quashing individuality to maintain the integrity of a group. “We always said the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Otis tells the audience. “But on our own, it’s hard to say what we added up to.” That may be, but it’s also a narrative shortfall that keeps the musical’s title characters at arm’s length.
Otis himself comes off as a kind of cypher, telling a side of the story in which he assumes leadership by default, hands out judgement and forgiveness, and largely absolves himself of everything aside from abandoning his son. By the time he stands over the rest of his bandmates smoking crack backstage on a reunion tour, bellowing “I ain’t doing that shit!” you might start checking the program, where he’s credited as an executive producer.
What we do get are the hits — “My Girl,” “Shout,” “Get Ready,” expertly sung catnip for synapses of all ages — and a career overview that accelerates after a men’s room run-in with Motown boss Barry Gordy. Milestone recordings punctuate cross-country tours illustrated by a flurry of city names projected across Robert Brill’s grey-scale set. When racists shoot up the tour bus somewhere near Alabama, Morisseau offers a rare moment of candid conviction about what achieving fame with white audiences means to them. “They listen to our music long as they ain’t gotta deal with us in the flesh,” says fiery one-time lead vocalist David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes).
Other brief turns in Morisseau’s script nod at the context into which the group rose to fame, but only in passing. MLK’s assassination registers as reason for a mournful “I Wish It Would Rain,” but the group’s move to record a political anthem (“Ball of Confusion”) is framed as a career choice rather than used to mine personal feeling.
But then, the Temptations are beloved for their soaring vocals (Jeremy Pope’s “Just My Imagination” is a honey-sweet high point), smooth moves (Sergio Trujillo choreographs to swoon) and slick suits (the enviable costumes are by Paul Tazewell). Director Des McAnuff, who set a benchmark for the genre with Jersey Boys nearly 15 years ago, sets the production whizzing and spinning with ease like a classic record on a turntable.
“We integrated the nation,” Otis says in bold summation of his group’s legacy. It’s another instance of telling us how it was rather than making us feel it for ourselves.
Photos by Matthew Murphy.
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