Not surprisingly, the best thing about Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s world-premiere musical “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations” is the heavy-hitting roster of Motown tunes by what some have called “the best group in the history of R&B.”
Starting from the whimsical first hit “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” through the meaty “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” the great 1960s-70s songs are delivered with style and verve by a dynamic quintet playing the five “classic” members who brought the Temptations to early fame: Ephraim Sykes as troubled lead singer David Ruffin; Jeremy Pope as falsetto “crooner” Eddie Kendricks; Jared Joseph as bass Melvin Franklin (aka “Blue”); James Harkness as the dancing “soul of the band” Paul Williams; and a sympathetic Derrick Baskin as Otis Williams, the group’s backbone, and narrator of the story.
Never the flashiest of the fellows, Otis Williams is the only member of the group living today; his book “Temptations” provided source material for “Ain’t Too Proud” playwright Dominique Morriseau.
Although she admirably packs in details, the script relies too heavily on narration, lacks emotional depth and is filled with clichéd dialogue that doesn’t sound like how people talk.
Directed by Des McAnuff (of “Jersey Boys” fame), the actors’ often exaggerated approach makes for little character development, particularly during the first act, as the Detroiters (originally from the South) join the Motown circuit under the wing of mogul Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) and songwriter Smokey Robinson (Christian Thompson).
Nonetheless, the facts of the story — as the band hits heights, it begins to disintegrate, each member facing personal and political trials and tragedies, from drug abuse to family strife to dealing with racism on tour — do ultimately jell.
And by the end, thanks to the dazzling musical accompaniment and brilliantly woven-in Motown catalog, “Ain’t Too Proud” does pack a wallop.
It looks good too. Not too fussy projections set the scenes; choreography by Sergio Trujillo captures the spirit of the Temps’ original smooth grooves, and costumes by Paul Tazewell reflect the wild era (although without the shocking orange and avocado tones popular at the time).
Still, it’s the performers’ show: The excellent cast is rounded out by Caliaf St. Aubyn as Dennis Edwards, the lead singer (following Ruffin’s ouster) on “Ball of Confusion” and “I Can’t Get Next to You.” And Rashidra Scott as Otis’ wife Josephine nearly stops the show with “If You Don’t’ Know Me By Now,” telling her partner she needs him home, not on the road.
Keyboard player-conductor Kenny Seymour leads a great 12-piece band serving up soulful stage interpretations of the indelible crossover hits that have thrilled generations.
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; extended through Nov. 5
Tickets: $40 to $125
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the TemptationsDavid RuffinDerrick BaskinDes McAnuffDominique MorriseauEddie KendricksEphraim SykesJames HarknessJared JosephJeremy PopeMelvin FranklinOtis WilliamsPop MusicPual WilliamsTheater