Review: Berkeley Rep’s ‘Ain’t Too Proud’ is loaded with ferocity and heart

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(l to r) David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes), Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope), Paul Williams (James Harkness) Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin) and Melvin Franklin (Jared Joseph) make up the Motown supergroup in the world premiere of “Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through Nov. 5th. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

My paternal grandfather was a legend in the Oakland flea market community. When I was a kid of nine, he and I would take off every Sunday morning to hunt down the latest bargains, and we’d usually finish off our jaunts at Talk of the Town on International Boulevard in Oakland, devouring carne asada burritos and cokes, refueling after pounding the drive-in pavement for hours on end.

So much of the stuff that occupied my room or his house came from that flea market. And his pride of saving 50 cents on parking by saying the magic words, “senior citizen” to the parking attendant made him feel like the first bargain he got took place before he even hit the vendors. Major score.

One of these morning trips saw him landing a critical item that greatly shaped my formative years – a record player. It was royal blue with a white handle, and came with its own speaker built into the side. Not being one to be screwed over, my grandfather put down a dollar deposit, and off we went to the snack bar, which had an electric outlet. He tested it out among the sun-soaked shoppers getting some respite in the big, cool cement building, and came away satisfied. This little blue beauty worked. A few more dollars to the vendor, and we were on our way.

Upon arriving home, I proudly showed my dad what grandpa got me, and my dad promptly added to my collection of second hand items, passing down a starter kit of tunes. A big stack of vinyl, but no sleeves. Many of the records were from an oldies but goodies collection, and in addition, there was plenty of Motown.

I don’t remember when I was struck by the magic of Motown, but it was easy to allow an evening of theatre to take me back to some of the warmest places of my life. Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s magnificent world premiere jukebox hit, “Ain’t too Proud: the Life and Times of the Temptations” is a marvel, a stunner, brimming with joy that comes with such magical music, but painful as to what the cost of success really was.

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Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin, foreground) works hard to keep the Temptations together. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Derrick Baskin, who first blew me away in New York as the enigmatic and pained “Gator,” in “Memphis” is in fine form here. Playing Otis Williams, the founder of the group and the one who recruited vocal wunderkind David Ruffin to the fold, it is through his narrative that we learn of what it means to be a Temptation.

The show feels familiar. Des McAnuff, who directed the gold standard of jukebox musicals, the 2005 Broadway smash “Jersey Boys,” has taken the reigns of this show as well. There are plenty of similarities in Dominique Morisseau’s wide-ranging script that covers a lot of ground. There are references to streetlamps, the struggle to get to the top, the women, the demons and the side deals that shaped both the rise and fall of the group considered the greatest Rhythm and Blues groups in history, a group that has seen 24 different Temptations to this day.

Does the familiarity make the show feel any less fresh? Hell no. The show is loaded with not just energy and joy but also plenty of pathos. It does not delve much into the social injustices of the 1960’s and how it shaped certain aspects of their existence, yet featured a scene about bus ride through some Southern states that did not take kindly to Black groups and their “race music.” And there is also an interesting tidbit about a protest song that was written for the Temptations, but ended up going to Edwin Starr instead. As Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. sadly yet pragmatically explained, if you are a Black group that sings a certain style of music, you can’t just go changing it up on white audiences.

The music is the star of the show, and both McAnuff’s direction and Morisseau’s book takes multiple songs and turns them on their head, interspersing the lyrics of the song with the story being told, never compromising the quality of the tune.

“I Wish it Would Rain” is an absolute tour de force, led brilliantly and viscerally by Ephraim Sykes and his succulent dash of rasp that channels Ruffin beautifully.

Rashidra Scott as Williams’ embattled wife Josephine brings the house down multiple times. This is a woman who did not sign up for any of this alternate universe, with a sense of foreboding always lurking in her scenes with her absent husband and her pain in raising their son alone. And my all-time favorite Temptations tune, “Just My Imagination” is another in the long line of surreal beauties that smartly portrays the continuing slide of the group as they move on to new realities. The opening guitar riff followed by signature angelic harmonies that start off the song is always magic. And the magnificent turn of Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendricks being backed up beautifully with harmonic warmth is pure heaven. Williams’ analysis as the song is being performed is loaded with sad poetry.

Add in the backstories of the aforementioned Temps, plus the literal painful journey of Melvin Franklin (an empathetic and gentle Jared Joseph) and the tragedy of Paul Williams (a tortured triumph by James Harkness), and the story of the supergroup is overwhelming.

It’s hard to watch this show and not wonder when it will land on the Great White Way. This creative team, from McAnuff and Morisseau, to the fantastic cast led by Baskin, to Tony winning Salinas native Robert Brill and his dazzling set design, is assembled for the long haul. Add in the ferocity of Sergio Trujillo’s stunning choreography, sensational costumes designed by Paul Tazewell and a smoking hot band led by conductor Kenny Seymour, you have a show that goes beyond the walls of Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre and directly into a Midtown Manhattan building.

My own journey of the Temptations has been a part of the soundtrack of my life. From that early mono speaker, to compact discs, Ipods and earbuds and then finally the sound explosion that takes over while sitting in the theatre, the Temptations have persevered when other groups shut it down.

“Ain’t too Proud” makes your imagination run away with you, and certainly gives you plenty of sunshine on a cloudy day.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents the world premiere of “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations”
Written by Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Des McAnuff
Featuring the music of the Temptations
The word: An absolute stunner. Fantastic performances make the music the star of the show.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes, one 15-minute intermission
Through Nov. 5th
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Tickets range from $40 – $135
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

 

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