Everybody dies by the end of Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of The Temptations. Everybody except Otis Williams, the last surviving member of The “Classic Five” Temptations. The other four included: David Ruffin who died at age 50 of an apparent drug overdose, Eddie Kendricks died of lung cancer at 52, Melvin Franklin died of heart failure, also at age 52, and Paul Williams committed suicide in 1973 after his alcoholism forced him out of the group.
Add in the death of Williams’ son Otis Lamont Williams at age 22 and you have the makings of an epic tragedy. Instead, this jukebox musical blasts out every Motown hit by The Temptations, recreating their harmonies and choreography without pausing for a breath. The book, by playwright Dominique Morriseau, relies heavily on Williams’ autobiography Temptations. Since his most significant singing partners have all departed, we have his narrative voice to trust as he guides us through the ups and downs of their story.
Ain’t Too Proud is even-handed and generous in conjuring up the life and personality of each Temptation. However, the primary function of Morriseau’s narrator Otis (Derrick Baskin) is essentially limited to filling us in on the creation of the songs and recording sessions, and to remind us why we’ve loved them since 1964 when “My Girl” became their first number one single. The tensions that make for resonant melodrama are quickly addressed and then smoothed over to make way for the music.
When you read Mary Wilson’s autobiography Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme, her account of being a Supreme fills in some of the blanks that Diana Ross or Berry Gordy might have otherwise forgotten or omitted. Had another Temptation lived to tell his tale, it’s easy to speculate about the perspective and how it might have shifted during certain moments or deepened.
The musical uses the song lyrics to expand on and substitute for the abbreviated bits of biography given. In this way Ain’t Too Proud recalls the 1981 musical Dreamgirls, which told a similar story of Motor City uplift and heartbreak. Dreamgirls though only had three members in its musical group. With fewer dramatis personae, and the freedom of being fictional, there was more room to flesh out their conflicting temperaments.
When Dreamgirls was made into a movie in 2006, the filmmakers made even more explicit the cost of fame and the perils of black performers singing for the adulation of both black and white audiences. Ain’t Too Proud feels primed for just such a translation to the big screen (notwithstanding the 1998 TV series that covers the same territory). Every one of their recognizable songs makes at least one appearance, sometimes two, and the singers universally sell all of them. Only Rashidra Scott‘s character as Otis’ first wife Josephine gets shortchanged. She began to sing a song that blew the house down but was cut off way too soon in favor of an overlong medley of songs by The Supremes.
With such unhappy fates awaiting four of the “Classic Five”, Ain’t Too Proud turns out to be a revival rather than a wake. From the first to the last notes, the theater walls could barely contain the amount of exultation on stage and in the audience. Otis Williams’ version of events suffers from just one thing — a surfeit of joy.
Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of The Temptations, through Nov. 5 at Berkeley Rep Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St. Berkeley, 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org