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theatre review

From left: Ephraim Sykes, Jeremy Pope, Jawan Jackson, James Harkness and Derrick Baskin star in Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.Matthew Murphy/The Canadian Press

  • Title: Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations
  • Written by: Dominique Morisseau
  • Music and lyrics by: The Motown catalogue
  • Director: Des McAnuff
  • Actors: Derrick Baskin, Ephraim Sykes
  • Company: Mirvish Productions
  • Venue: The Princess of Wales Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to Nov. 17


3 out of 4 stars

Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations is The Walking Dead of jukebox musicals – at times thrilling, at others boring, but a strangely fascinating mix and mismatch of existentialism and entertainment.

The Broadway-bound show dramatizes the evolution of the Motown R&B group from its early years to the present (yes, the Temptations still exist) as a brutal game of survival of the fittest. The joke is that, with its ever-rotating roster, the group’s shortened moniker fits like a glove: the Temps.

An original Temp tenor barely appears on stage before he’s gone; his replacement, David Ruffin (an electric Ephraim Sykes), is banished, forms a new group, fights against the Temps and then returns to the fold before he disappears for good.

Which Temps will last from the sweet, innocent harmonies of 1964’s My Girl through to the psychedelic soul of Papa was a Rolling Stone in 1972, as zombies of the music industry – violence, drugs, ego – lurk around each corner in Detroit waiting to bite.

Read more: The artistic team behind Jersey Boys takes on the Temptations – but don’t call it a jukebox musical

Created by Jersey Boys’ Canadian-raised director/choreographer team Des McAnuff and Sergio Trujillo with the acclaimed Detroit-based playwright Dominique Morisseau, Ain’t Too Proud’s first act is a paint-by-numbers, past-tense affair – although constantly lively as a musical spectacle thanks to a catalogue of great Motown tunes performed by an ensemble of sensational singers and dancers.

While McAnuff has long loved using treadmills in theatre, his enthusiastic embrace of them here feels like a nod to Detroit’s auto industry, Temptations gliding on and off stage like they are auto parts on an assembly line.

Our semi-reliable narrator is the Temptations’ founder and last man standing, Otis Williams – played by an aloof Derrick Baskin, who seems shell-shocked by the story he is telling us.

He is the guy who keeps the group together – but, personality wise, is fairly bland compared to the other Classic Five Temps: choreographer Paul Williams (a sweet James Harkness), deep-voiced Melvin Franklin (Jawan M Jackson), soaring tenor Eddie Kendricks (a stand-out Jeremy Pope) and Ruffin.

Otis, more in sadness than in anger, details the moral failings of other Temps like a disappointed father – but he, or the show’s creators, are a little less judgmental of himself. A scene in which a judge tells him he has to marry the mother of his child or be charged with statutory rape is painted primarily as a comic one.

The turmoil and the tragedies of the Civil Rights era serve as a backdrop to these ins-and-outs of the African-American singing group – sometimes too literally. The 1967 Detroit riots and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. enter the action in the form of projections of newspaper headlines and pictures on the flat surfaces of Robert Brill’s set – then vanish.

Mention is made of the Temps' refusal to play in front of segregated audiences, but also some of the compromises they made to attract a wider audience. (“A whiter audience,” one Temp says bitterly.)

At one point, Motown head Berry Gordy Jr. (an ineffective Marqell Edward Clayton) rejects releasing the Temptations’ version of War (As in: “What is it good for?”) as a single to avoid offending their audience. (Edwin Starr, instead, gets to go to No. 1 with the song.)

“You want political, we’ll do political – mildy,” Gordy tells Otis and the rest.

The same goes for Ain’t Too Proud – although Sykes’s anguished voice and desperate moves as the troubled and uber-talented Ruffin speaks powerfully to the American black experience in its own way.

You may wonder why he’s not the lead. In the second act, Otis emerges as his own complex character, however.

While stressing the importance of the equality of the members of the group, in actuality, Otis seems to care more about the idea of the Temptations than the Temptations as individuals. He takes the lead in kicking members out when they struggle with addiction (in the case of Paul Williams’s alcoholism) – unless, of course, that addiction keeps them touring and performing (in the case of Franklin’s cortisone shots).

Then, there’s Otis’s distant relationship with his son Lamont (a soulful Shawn Bowers) – who eventually calls him on how his words and actions do not always line up.

While Trujillo’s choreography is outstanding throughout – taking era-authentic choreography as inspiration and then super-charging it – it is moving in dealing with the relationship between father and son.

At one point, Lamont appears as a shadow Temptation, dancing behind a long line of Temptations. It’s like a cross between A Chorus Line and Crystal Pite’s Betroffenheit – and you see the sadness amid the showbiz, the trauma behind the talent.

Artful moments such as that are too infrequent in Ain’t Too Proud – but, in the end, there is something truly tragic in the story of Otis’s survival. Keeping the brand together – rather, the band together – he ends up alone.