Resisting Temptation: Berkeley Rep’s “Ain’t Too Proud”

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Christian Thompson (Smokey Robinson), Ephraim Sykes (David Ruffin), Jared Joseph (Melvin Franklin), Derrick Baskin (Otis Williams), Jeremy Pope (Eddie Kendricks), and James Harkness (Paul Williams)  in “Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations.” (Photo: Carole Litwin)

Berkeley Rep’s new Broadway try-out, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations, is another jukebox musical biography (or as playwright Dominique Morisseau refers to it, a “catalog musical”) in the vein of Jersey Boys and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, but focusing this time on the phenomenally successful Motown artists. (The production also shares a lineage with Motown: The Musical, Berry Gordy’s execrable paean to Berry Gordy. When you watch Motown, one of the things you think, aside from how much it stinks, is that any one of these groups deserves a show all of their own. Thither Ain’t Too Proud.) I had high hopes going in, because I adore The Temptations (who doesn’t?), their music is wedded to their choreography in a way that seems particularly stage-worthy, and their songs are emblematic of an era in American history in a way that the other two aren’t, no matter how much I may love their work.

The show is essentially sold-out, even after being extended, and it will almost certainly be a huge hit on Broadway. You can understand why when you hear those amazing hits performed by the five ferociously talented young actors and dancers who play the original members of the group. (The ensemble, playing roles such as Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Berry Gordy, replacement members of the group, and wives and lovers, is also exceptional.) With any justice, two of them, Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendricks and Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin, will become big stars. (Sykes played the role of Seaweed Stubbs on the recently televised Hairspray Live!, one of the few bright spots in that misbegotten venture.) Oozing charisma, Pope, with his gorgeous falsetto, and Sykes with his growling baritone hold the stage in every scene, projecting an effortless joy with their singing and dancing.

But for me the show is a major disappointment, with the fault for that lying directly in Morisseau’s book and director Des McAnuff’s conception. This is Morisseau’s first musical, having previously written such plays as Pipeline, Detroit ’67, and Skeleton Crew. Old hand McAnuff directed Jersey Boys, just one of a storied slew of his Broadway successes.

Morisseau’s based her book on The Temptations, written by Otis Williams, the last surviving member of the original group. Her solution to dramatizing his story is to tell it from his point of view, Williams being embodied by actor Derrick Baskin. Baskin is thus on stage for the entirety of the running time, mostly addressing the audience directly, interrupting songs and scenes to tell us information we already know. You’ll be shocked to learn that offstage, the Temptations had problems with drugs, were involved in marriage and relationship difficulties, endured racism, and fought a lot with each other. And that’s essentially all we learn about these artists.

Similar to Jersey Boys and Beautiful, Ain’t Too Proud presents the biographical details of its protagonists’ lives as generic soap opera. Morisseau and McAnuff are incapable of presenting the Temps as people, so it’s no surprise the cast ultimately comes through only as performers. The creators also split up and interrupt the songs, so that Baskin/Williams can explain and narrate, or unimaginative bits of dialogue or scenes of discord can take place. We almost never get to hear an entire song, despite these being some of the greatest tunes ever to come over the radio.

The creators also use certain numbers as book songs, as McAnuff did in Jersey Boys, a cheap theatricalization that drives me crazy. In a typical romantic musical, we go along with the illusion that when a character breaks into song, he or she is making it up on the spot, singing spontaneously in reaction to the circumstances. But in a musical biography, the show is supposed to be about the creation of that music, about the work, the rehearsal, everything that goes into making a hit recording or performance. So when a character breaks into one of the group’s hits to express their love for their girl or their anger at each other or their sadness at leaving the group, the show becomes as phony as it gets.

Robert Brill’s overly austere set tends towards greys and blacks as do Peter Negrini’s, projections (which are really what are relied on to set the scene). We get no brightness or color until the Supremes make an appearance in red sequined dresses, then it’s back to the greys with an occasional subtle blue. Negrini also anachronistically uses the modern, gleaming metallic Motown logo, a stylized ‘M.” That red, green, and yellow logo that adorns so many of my treasured records and 45s is nowhere to be found. Luckily, veteran Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is terrific and looks great on the cast. (Trujillo also created the movement for Jersey Boys, the Gloria Estefan “catalog musical” On Your Feet—a show I will never see—and a number of other prominent productions.)

Why can’t Broadway figure out how to personalize these artists when their stories are brought to the stage? (The much-reviled yet hugely successful late ‘70s smash Beatlemania at least had the good sense not to have any book at all.) The answer is pretty simple: Because they don’t have to. These shows have a built-in audience, tourists and theatregoers lap up tickets to hear songs they already know. The productions get Tonys and other awards even when the critics are lukewarm, and they run for years, spawning tour after tour. Why should the writers and directors work to create art, when the audiences are already responding to the music and aren’t asking for anything more? Well, despite the success of these shows, despite the royalties that pour in to the surviving artists, and the pots of money the producers make, theatre-goers get no real understanding of these artists as people, what it costs, emotionally, financially, and physically, to make an audience experience the joys of their art and performance. The books of these shows are about as interesting as Wikipedia entries, and the whole undertaking ends up undermining the artists and the very art they’ve created. But not even the Temptations are immune from temptation. This isn’t the first of these “catalog musicals” and it certainly won’t be the last. But I doubt I’ll be able to drag myself to another one, no matter how much I love the artist. They’re just too dispiriting.

Ain’t Too ProudThe Life and Times of the Temptations plays through November 5, 2017 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. For more information, go to https://www.berkeleyrep.org/season/1718/12025.asp.

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Troika Travesty: Berkeley Rep’s “Three Sisters”

Irina (Heather Wood) tries to wash off the stink while Tuzenbach (Thomas Jay Ryan) realizes it ain't comin' off. (Photo courtesy of mellopix.com)

Over in Berkeley, a conspiracy is happening eight times a week.  Director Les Waters and adaptor/playwright Sarah Ruhl (Eurydice, In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)) have plotted to produce a version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters bereft of beauty, delicacy, and artistry, substituting a crass, clanging mess in place of one of the great masterpieces of world theater.  I have seen many bad or misguided productions of Chekhov, but I’ve never seen anything to rival this abomination.  It’s like watching a production of Streetcar adapted and directed by Stanley Kowalski. Waters and Ruhl apparently believe that if Chekhov were alive today, he’d be a staff writer for “Two and Half Men.”  (Chekhov was bi-winning, man.)

Why does Baron Tuzenbach (Thomas Jay Ryan) announce he’s going to play the piano and then crash his hands down discordantly on the keyboard and then yuk it up like it’s not something an ill-behaved child does?  Why does Masha (Natalia Payne) keep saying “Goddammit”?  Why is Olga (Wendy Rich Stetson) so boring and dowdy?  Why is Natasha (Emily Kitchens) played as a twitchy, goggle-eyed circus freak, unbecomingly got up in pink gingham? Why, when the men dance and sing, are they so loud and clumsy, knocking over drinking glasses?  No wonder Natasha wants them the hell out of the house.  Why do almost none of the actors appear to know anything about naturalistic acting, declaiming in monotones, with odd pauses?  Is this supposed to be some sort of Commedia Dell’Arte version of Three Sisters, God help us all?  Do Waters and Ruhl actually believe Chekhov wrote this play about a bunch of buffoons?

It seems that the creative (term used extremely loosely) team feels deeply that portraying a character as unhappy on stage will drive the audience away, or will be undramatic, or something, so all the good folks in Three Sisters are rendered as bat-shit crazy instead.  (‘Cause it’s funny, man!  And Chekhov wrote comedies, man!  Just ask him!) I sat through the first two acts with my mouth open, jaw dropped as far as it could go, stupefied.  I did not sit through the last two acts, my urge to make the pain stop overcoming my curiosity as to how people who think that the Prozorov family was a precursor to Al and Peg Bundy would handle the tragedies of the third and fourth acts.

Is there anything good about this production?  Annie Smart’s set is both rustic and elegant, using blonde wood and blue panels.  Alex Moggridge attempts to give a performance as Andrei, the put-upon brother to the three sisters.  But as Ruhl has the good doctor Chebutykin (James Carpenter) say: “Ah, who gives a shit?”  (And yes, that is actually a line that the celebrated playwright Sarah Ruhl thinks is appropriate for a production of Chekhov.  She’s a genius and she’s got the grant to prove it!)

In the program notes, Ruhl writes, “I am sorry, Anton, for any havoc I have wreaked….” Some things are unforgiveable.

Hey, it don't look so bad in this pic! And yet it is. (From left to right: Natalia Payne, Heather Wood, and Wendy Rich Stetson. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com.)

Three Sisters plays through May 22, 2011 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, CA.  To purchase tickets, call 510-647-2949 or go to berkeleyrep.org. But why, WHY, would you ever do such a thing?