The story itself, though, is exactly what you’ve come to expect in this increasingly crowded corner of musical theater’s answer to Madame Tussauds: the ups and downs and ups and downs, onstage and off, of a platinum-plated pop phenomenon. Truly, it’s getting to the point at which visitors from other cultures might think that what we mean by a musical is the downloading to a theater sound system of the greatest hits from the golden age of rock-and-roll.
That may be something of an oversimplification — but actually accounts for the rationale behind anthology shows like this, and “Jersey Boys,” and “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” and “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” and “On Your Feet!” about Gloria and Emilio Estefan, and forthcoming musicals about Cher and Michael Jackson.
“Ain’t Too Proud,” with a book by gifted wordsmith Dominique Morisseau and direction by rock-musical vet Des McAnuff (“The Who’s Tommy,” among others), had an official Washington opening Thursday night in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, after a world premiere in California, and on its way to an inevitable but as yet unannounced Broadway run.
On the basis of what’s on view in the Eisenhower, the slick and consistently entertaining “Ain’t Too Proud” is surely ready for Broadway, and a couple of the anchoring performances infuse it with enough dramatic life to sustain a 2½ -hour production. The antagonistic partnership between two of the five “classic” Temptations, Otis Williams (played by Derrick Baskin) and David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes), sustains the central tension of the piece, with Baskin serving as the evening’s even-keeled narrator. (The musical is based on a 2012 memoir by Williams, the last survivor among the original group members.) Sykes’s fiery, egocentric Ruffin is forever chafing at the homogeneity of style and sharing of credit demanded by Williams — a behavioral legacy that may help to explain why, over the past six decades, 24 men have rotated through the group.
“Ain’t Too Proud” consists of 31 songs, in a story that focuses on the Temptations’ roots in Detroit in the ’60s, and takes us up to 1974. This allows Morisseau to build a narrative around some of the Temptations’ best work, and many of the songs written for them by Smokey Robinson and Norman Whitfield. It also allows the creative team, and Trujillo in particular, to stage some smashing renditions of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Get Ready,” “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” “War” and — you guessed it — “My Girl.”
Influenced by R&B pioneers such as the Pips (later known as Gladys Knight and . . .), the Cadillacs and the Four Tops, the Temptations would eclipse them all as exemplars of the Motown sound. They had the theatrical savvy to develop their own inimitable concert presence, in the dance steps that Trujillo pumps up on the Eisenhower stage. And under the guidance of impresario Berry Gordy (an excellent Jahi Kearse), the group aspired successfully to a crossover appeal; “Ain’t Too Proud” suggests that it was a nonthreatening, apolitical approach that enhanced the Temptations’ popularity, at a time when other singers and groups were advancing more passionately into material that embraced black power and the antiwar movement.
As is required of the genre, Morisseau pulls back the curtain on backstage problems and sorrows; the dissipation and premature deaths of some of the original Temptations, the marital troubles brought on by professional lives lived on the road. Each of the classic Temptations is allowed to make a vivid impression, and along with Baskin and Sykes, James Harkness as Paul Williams; Jawan M. Jackson as Melvin Franklin and Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendricks all contribute multidimensional turns as pivotal figures in the Temptations’ evolution.
Disruption of a political sort might not ever have been a hallmark of the Temptations, even in the turbulent era in which the group found its voice, but “Ain’t Too Proud” manages to reveal how much turmoil is involved in the creation of the smoothest of sounds. One of the evening’s best scenes has Sykes’s Ruffin, already fired from the group, evading security and popping up onstage in the middle of a Temptations performance. “Don’t Look Back” might have been the title of one of their early hits, but once a singer experienced the incredible high of being part of an international sensation, it was hard not to want to look back, and float in that lofty space, forever.
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations
, book by Dominique Morisseau, music and lyrics from The Legendary Motown Catalog. Directed by Des McAnuff. Choreography, Sergio Trujillo; orchestrations, Harold Wheeler; music direction, Kenny Seymour; sets, Robert Brill; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Steve Canyon Kennedy; projections, Peter Nigrini; hair and wigs, Charles G. LaPointe; fight direction, Steve Rankin. With Taylor Simone Jackson, E. Clayton Cornelious, Caliaf St. Aubyn, Christian Thompson, Candice Marie Woods, Joshua Morgan, Nasia Thomas, Rashidra Scott. About 2 1/2
hours. $59-$175, plus service charges. Through July 22 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. kennedy-center.org or 202-467-4600.