The wonderful thing about biographies is that they allow writers to get away with an overload of melodrama and irony that would never work in fiction. Take the story of the Temptations, the most successful rhythm-and-blues group ever: Paul Williams committed suicide, David Ruffin OD'd in a crack house, Eddie Kendricks died of lung cancer, and Melvin Franklin destroyed his immune system through the overuse of cortisone while suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Which leaves it to Temptations founder and survivor Otis Williams to tell the story of these men in the new musical "Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations," which opened Thursday at the Imperial Theatre.
Besides eschewing the drugs, booze, women and the egomania that brought down so many of the other Temptations, Otis Williams had it relatively easy in comparison. He only got his girlfriend pregnant, endured a shotgun wedding and promptly ignored his wife before she left him for another man. Years later, his only son died in a construction accident at age 22.
In other words, "Ain't Too Proud" delivers more traumas than "The Jersey Boys," "The Cher Show," "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" and "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" combined.
Dominique Morisseau's book for "Ain't Too Proud" is based on Williams's autobiography, "The Temptations," and may explain why Williams is the most genial subject of a musical since Carole King, whose show would more aptly be titled "Nice."
Derrick Baskin's impersonation of Otis Williams defines the word "innocuous," even though late in the musical he is accused of being a control freak. Here, control freak is an encomium for a man coping with drug addicts, alcoholics and egomaniacs. During the overly long first act, Baskin/Williams is able to resolve in record time every problem the Temptations encounter: A feisty manager is fired and a demanding mother is appeased within minutes of being introduced. Rather than dramatizing the group's rise to stardom, Morisseau's book has Baskin/Williams narrate it.
Real drama doesn't arrive until singer Al Bryant (Jarvis B. Manning Jr.) is replaced by David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes). There are four more musicals to opens this Broadway season, but it's difficult to imagine a performer more energized in any of them than Sykes. His superstar-making turn as Ruffin sums up that old adage about the brightest burning out the fastest.
Baskin/Williams keeps telling us that the Temptations are a group, and how it's not about any one star. Sykes defies that platitude with every song he sings, every jump and split he lands, every mic he tosses and catches in the air. Sykes makes it totally understandable why such a talent would keep the others waiting, miss engagements and then show up uninvited to crash performances after he'd been fired from the Temptations.
If only Ruffin/Sykes were narrating "Ain't Too Proud." For one thing, we'd be spared the cliched build-up to the group's success and the endless parade of funerals at the end.
It makes dramatic sense that Ruffin's closest ally in the group is Kendricks, especially as played by Jeremy Pope, hot off his own breakthrough performance in the just-closed Broadway drama "Choir Boy." Both men exude an aura of suspense and danger on stage, as if each song could be their last. They'll worry about their aching joints and vocal chords in the morning.
Playing Paul Williams and Melvin Franklin, respectively, James Harkness and Jawan M. Jackson impress with their vocals. Baskin appears to be the weak link, but surprises with a stirring "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" near the end. It's Sykes and Pope, however, who prove that the parts can sometimes be much greater than the whole.
Why do audiences love these cautionary showbiz tales? Do we need to see how miserable the rich, the talented and the famous really are under all that money and glitz?
Des McAnuff's direction of "Ain't Too Proud" gives us both the alluring razzle-dazzle and the underlying nightly grind of touring. Repeatedly, the Temptations perform to us out front, then turn to deliver the next few bars to the other three walls of the stage. Meanwhile, Robert Brill's scenic design and Peter Nigrini's projections give us the towns the men are playing -- Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver. After a while, it's all a blur and we understand how a gifted talent like Ruffin's just doesn't fit within that box.