NEW YORK — Lightning seemed to strike when “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations” arrived last summer at the Kennedy Center. And what do you know, it has struck again, at the Imperial Theatre, where this electrifying musical had its official Broadway opening Thursday night.
Buoyed by the suave choreography of Sergio Trujillo and thrill-a-minute performances by such stars-in-the-making as Jeremy Pope and Ephraim Sykes, “Ain’t Too Proud” proves to be two or three cuts above the standard-issue anthology pop musical. The adventure in branding for which some jukebox productions settle here makes for a far richer experience. This result is achieved courtesy of the storied group’s deep melodic library, as well as book writer Dominique Morriseau’s dexterity at conveying each member’s journey.
Time on the road — “Ain’t Too Proud” made several stops, including Washington, before it found a Broadway home — has seasoned director Des McAnuff’s production, made Trujillo’s remarkable work even sharper and given the cast a useful interlude in which to explore their characters. As volatile David Ruffin, one of the five “classic” Temptations (24 men have rotated through the group), Sykes brings both mad dance skills and scary intimations of imminent implosion. Pope’s portrayal of quick-to-sulk Eddie Kendricks exudes the magnetic self-regard that reads as charm onstage and trouble off.
At the center of the Temptations vortex stands Derrick Baskin, in a wholly satisfying turn as likable Otis Williams, the group’s sensible anchor and the evening’s narrator. Baskin’s Otis is the earthbound antidote to the flash of Sykes’s David and the moodiness of Pope’s Eddie. Rounding out the original five, Jawan M. Jackson plays bass singer Melvin Franklin exuberantly as a comically uncomplicated appendage, while James Harkness deftly conveys the broken spirit of Paul Williams, who drowned his insecurities in booze.
McAnuff himself has been down this road before, as director of the Tony-winning “Jersey Boys,” the history of the Four Seasons recounted via their songbook; the propulsive narrative of “Ain’t Too Proud” not only reflects Morriseau’s understanding of how to invest an audience in the Temptations’ emotional spirals, but also McAnuff’s savvy at packing the music into every available nook and cranny. There’s hardly enough time to swoon over one fantastic track before a sublime 18-member orchestra led by Kenny Seymour strikes up yet another.
On an evening of “My Girl,” “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” “Get Ready,” “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” “Just My Imagination” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” the only thing left to wait for is the sound of a disembodied voice from late-night TV saying, “Order now! And you’ll also get . . . ”
The story Morriseau opts for is based on the memoir by Williams, the only surviving original Temptation, and so perhaps the recollections have to be thought of as skewed in his favor a bit; his three marriages are represented here by just one troubled early one, to Josephine Rogers (the excellent Rashidra Scott). It’s the group’s internal struggles, rather than the political turmoil of the ’60s and ’70s, the Temptations’ heyday, that animates the show. After, for instance, Ruffin is booted from the group for absenteeism and too much partying, his inability to come to terms with the rejection has dramatic — and comic — consequences. In one funny interlude, he crashes a concert stage and steals a mic from his replacement, Dennis Edwards (the terrific Saint Aubyn). He’s the spirit who refuses to be exorcised.
Did I mention that the Supremes (chicly inhabited by Candice Marie Woods, Nasia Thomas and Taylor Symone Jackson) make a cameo? Or that it was record producer extraordinaire Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) who allied the Temptations with songwriter Smokey Robinson (Christian Thompson)?
How, you wonder, could all of this talent belonging to the ages have been nurtured in just one American city? Time and again, projection designer Peter Negrini flashes the name of that municipality across the back of the Imperial stage. From the evidence of the marvelous “Ain’t Too Proud,” the letters that spell “Detroit” can never be written big enough.
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, book by Dominique Morriseau, music and lyrics from the Motown catalogue. Directed by Des McAnuff. Sets, Robert Brill; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Steve Canyon Kennedy. With Joshua Morgan, Jarvis B. Manning Jr. About 2½ hours. $49-$299. At Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St., New York. 212-239-6200. telecharge.com.