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NY Theater Reviews

Ephraim Sykes, Jeremy Pope, Jawan M. Jackson, James Harkness and Derrick Baskin/ Ph: Matthew Murphy

MOTOWN 2.0

By JEREMY GERARD

This superb jukebox musical about The Temptations churns out one hit after the next.

Like your iPhotos and Spotify accounts, not to mention that closet in the second bedroom, the best jukebox musicals are jammed with stuff you’ve long since forgotten but dare not toss. Because we all know within 24 hours, that thing you hadn’t looked at, listened to or thought about will be the very thing you need right now. Who knew, in 1978, how hungry audiences would be for the thrill of hearing André De Shields sing “’T Ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do” in Ain’t Misbehavin’? That first blockbuster jukebox show proved that the safe lust of nostalgia would stoke global franchises including Smokey Joe’s Café, Mamma Mia!The Who’s Tommy and Jersey Boys, along with a thousand imitators. 
 
Sources as diverse as Tin Pan Alley and Nashville provided the backlist for many of these shows (including current hits Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, The Cher Show, and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, which recently took early retirement). Music producer Berry Gordy and his hometown label’s astonishing roster of R&B superstars joined the craze with 2013’s Motown: The Musical.
 
Now comes Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, and it’s going to be a hit because you can feel the energy zapping like static electricity off the theatergoers leaving the Imperial Theatre after two and a half hours under the spell of some of the most enduring chartbusters of the 1960s and the decades that followed. Call it Motown 2.0. They will tell their friends to buy tickets because who among us couldn’t use a megadose of “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me),” “Cloud Nine” and of course “My Girl” – 31 in all – put across with almost unearthly élan.
 
As a concert, Ain’t Too Proud is as good as Jersey Boys, essentially the default Platonic ideal of jukebox shows. Under the cinematic direction of Des McAnuff and cocky choreographer Sergio Trujillo, every move (oh, the moves) and lyric is calibrated with Rockettes-like precision to deliver maximum pleasure. That shouldn’t be too much of a surprise; McAnuff and Trujillo honchoed Jersey Boys, and McAnuff is a rock-musical legend whose credits include Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar.
 
On the other hand, in recounting the story of Motown’s crowning male group, Ain’t Too Proud falls significantly short of the best of these shows. Playwright Dominique Morisseau’s book, based on Otis Williams’ memoir of forming the group and navigating the Temptations’ shifting personnel and fortunes over several tumultuous decades, is so compressed and such a gloss (especially over the bad times) that the show often took my breath away for all the wrong reasons.
 
It opens with the group singing “The Way You Do the Things You Do” as Williams (the affable Derrick Baskin) steps into a solo spotlight as though hosting “Sentimental Journey.” The song was their first on the charts after 24 singles. He recalls stopping in at the Motown offices with David Ruffin, primus inter pares among the quintet’s honey-voiced singers, to get the news of their first hit.
 
“We made history together,” Williams says. “When you finally reach the summit, you realize all the flock have scattered and you’re the only one left. That’s when it’s time to revisit your journey. Measure if it was worth the cost of losing your brothers: David, Eddie, Paul, Melvin … the classic men who built the Temptations.” From such clunky exposition follows more clunky exposition as Williams adds to “the five youngbloods” whose first name as a group is the Elgins. After a stint in juvenile detention, he hears the Cadillacs at Motor City’s Fox Theatre and finds his calling.
 
Willams’ first recruit is basso profundo Melvin Franklin (Jawan M. Jackson, possessed of a voice that emerges from some very deep chasm). Then come the group’s Frankie Valli, counter-tenor Eddie Kendricks (the irresistibly game Jeremy Pope, fresh off his starring role in Tarell Alvin McRaney’s Choir Boy), the troubled baritone Paul Williams (James Harkness, restrained), and finally the spotlight-loving Ruffin (the sensational Ephraim Sykes). Together they’re a heavenly choir, the Swingle Singers of R&B, their harmonies echoing the folk-rock influences even the Beatles were emulating (“If I Fell,” for one instance among many).
 
Gordy (Jahi Kearse, playing stolid to the hilt) grooms the unseasoned group, assigns them songwriter Norman Whitfield (Jarvis B. Manning Jr.), positions them against the Supremes (poured here into glittering red gowns) and has them add hypnotic dance routines to their performance. (Incredibly, no mention is made of Motown’s game-changing choreographer Cholly Atkins. The moves are presented as though the men invented them and became superb dancers through divine inspiration.) Just as disturbingly, the songs are chopped up, rarely presented in full. “Just My Imagination,” Kendricks’ last single with the Temps, ends before the surging, chorale-like climax that made it a worthy competitor of the Beach Boys of Pet Sounds and the Beatles of Rubber Soul.
 
Discord within the group grows, festers, and results in departures, firings and new members as the Temps churn out hit upon hit and the country burns, fueled by anti-war protests, the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King – most of which Gordy has the Temps ignore, until they show (with “Ball of Confusion,” “Papa Was a Rollin Stone” and “Cloud Nine”) that a change in the popular sentiment opened up a lucrative possibility in getting relevant.
 
There is superb, elegant work from set designer Robert Brill and lighting designer Howell Binkley (look for the homages to one of this theater’s not-so-distant tenants, Dreamgirls) and costume designer Paul Tazewell. Steve Canyon Kennedy’s sound scheme is gloriously refined.
 
“Between 1963 and today, there have been 24 Temptations,” Williams notes as the show draws to a close. “And we’re still going strong.” McAnuff and Trujillo close it out with a masterstroke, a reunion of all the Temps stretched across the stage of the Imperial, singing “I Can’t Get Next to You.” Well, we’ve gotten close enough to matter.