In the wake of the long-running “Jersey Boys” and the short-lived “Summer,” director Des McAnuff is back on Broadway with another show built around the song catalog of a music act — and although “Ain’t Too Proud” has all the right sounds and slick moves, this bio-musical of the R&B vocal group the Temptations is more “Summer”-conventional than “Jersey Boys”-fresh.
But polished performances, slick choreography (by Sergio Trujillio) and a slate of 31 Motown tunes should satisfy audiences who might not be looking for probing storytelling, as long as the show delivers well-performed hits. That it does, as it centers on the story of the classic quintet of performers singing “Cloud Nine,” “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” ”My Girl,” “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” and the title song, among others — including some songs that weren’t the group’s own.
Tapping hot playwright Dominique Morisseau (“Pipeline,” “Skeleton Crew“) to write the musical’s book raises expectations for a show with a strong point of view, an overriding theme, and writing that can soar, snap and create rich musical portraits. Instead the script delivers clichés and melodrama, with founding member and sole surviving singer of the original group Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin) earnestly delivering a kind of “Behind the Music” narration. (“We were beginning to learn the real cost of success,” he says portentously.)
There are brief nods to touring in the segregated South, to the assassination of Martin Luther King and to the Vietnam protests, but these feel more like timeline checkpoints than integrated scenes. The script also has the whiff of committee clearance, with hardly a single scene that confronts, challenges or surprises in any exceptional way, as if the libretto has to follow Motown’s mission of creating easily-digestible, crossover hits.
At least things don’t drag, thanks to McAnuff’s fast-paced direction. Hardly a scene lasts more than a page or two as the vocal group goes through the typical arc of growth, triumph, fall and redemption.
The formulaic storyline starts with the creation of the band in Detroit and its early modest success under the Motown banner and the tutelage of Berry Gordy (Jahi Kewarse). Soon the inevitable off-stage temptations (drugs, women, fame, alcohol) lead to conflicts within the group, and members exit one by one to leave Williams the last man standing. (The show is based on his memoir.)
Paul Williams (James Harkness, very good) succumbs to booze and suicide, but not before singing, bizarrely, a Stevie Wonder song, ”For Once in My Life.” Health issues bring down Melvin Franklin (Jawan M. Jackson, who uses his basso voice with perfect comic timing). Standouts in the quintet are Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin with quicksilver moves and breathtaking splits — and who kills with “I Could Never Love Another (After Losing You)” — and Jeremy Pope (fresh from the lead in “Choir Boy”) playing Eddie Kendricks, in an extraordinary turn as the group’s onstage charmer and off-stage scold. In “Just My Imagination” and others tunes, Pope’s sweet falsetto takes the lead and sweeps you away.
When the Supremes appear a few times to sing with the Temps, the show suddenly gets a jolt of true star power, thanks to Candice Marie Woods’ electrifying performance as Diana Ross. But these brief moments also remind you of the Supremes-inspired, classic musical “Dreamgirls” — and the kind of rich and complex storytelling that’s missing from this show.
If there’s one theme that does emerge as one singer after another is fired, dies or is replaced by a sound-alike, it’s that the success of the group was never about the uniqueness of the 20-plus terrific but interchangeable vocalists who have been part of the group over the years. I’s all about their blend — and their music.