Infectious musical numbers are swell. Singing, dancing and choreography are great. As these are the reasons for attending yet another jukebox musical, this sketchy biopic is more than half way home. Did I mention Sergio Trujillo’s terrific choreography? I mean choreography, not just synchronized movement of the era. Terrific.
The Temptations’ story has little arc. With a predominantly narrated book, Dominique Morisseau tells us practically nothing about group members which might conceivably make us care a little. Because this was an equal opportunity ensemble, more than just vocal differentiation would serve. Lead singers come and go. Drug, alcohol, abuse and ego issues – cursory on stage – plague what was originally a brotherhood. The price of fame.
Romance is vague. Women are stuck in like square pegs in round holes in an effort to add distaff vocals. Depiction of The Supremes is alas, particularly weak. Crossing over to a multiracial listening audience is given short shrift. We glimpse a single instance of bigotry. More time for songs.
Derrick Baskin does a fine job in the understated role of put-upon founder, Otis Williams, the last man standing. Ephraim Sykes (David Ruffin) and Jeremy Pope (Eddie Kendricks) are exceptional vocalist/dancers – though everyone holds his own. Jawan M. Jackson (Melvin Franklin “Blue” – glorious bass) and James Harkness (Paul Williams) imbue their characters with more distinction than dialogue allots. Watching these men perform together is joyful.
Director Dess McAnuff who gave us the first and one of the most successful of this genre with Jersey Boys, keeps the piece flowing, aided and abetted by Scenic Designer Robert Brill’s moving sidewalks and turntable. At one point, we see the group perform from four different angles altering performance perspective. Entrances and exits are often amusing, as if driven by fate. Given little time to establish personality, facial expression especially counts. Narration is sympathetic, unobtrusive.
Peter Nigrini’s Projection Design is expansive without interfering. Costumes by Paul Tazewell range from Motown performance bad – which is to say seriously right –to men’s street ensembles, both individual and cool. Women fare less well in unflattering dresses. The inimitable Charles G. Lapointe offers well styled wigs.
Here’s the rub, Sound Design by Steve Canyon Kennedy is uneven at best. Some numbers come alive, others – including the opening – are muddy and too low. For a musical about music to suffer this failing makes one wonder what’s happened to people’s ears. Where are the professionals? Where’s the vibrancy?
Since 1963, here have been 24 Temptations. The group still performs. It’s easy to see why.
Photos by Mathew Murphy
Opening: Ephraim Sykes, Jawan M. Jackson, Jeremy Pope, Derrick Baskin, and James Harkness
Ain’t Too Proud-The Life and Times of The Temptations
Book- Dominique Morisseau
Music & Lyrics from The Motown Catalog
Based on The Temptations by Otis Williams with Patricia Romanowski
Directed by Des McAnuff
Imperial Theatre 249 West 45th Street