Juke Joint

Motown musical has right moves

It’s a recent and rising staple of the modern American musical: the “jukebox biography.”

As the term implies, it’s part jukebox musical—a common term for any show built from existing tunes that are usually part of one artist or one genre’s existing catalogue of songs—and part biography. Popular recent examples include 2005’s Jersey Boys, 2013’s A Night with Janis Joplin, and 2013’s Beautiful: The Carol King Musical, each telling the true story of a famous musician or group, using that musician’s own songs as part of the tale.

All three examples have had Broadway runs and successful touring productions. Joplin has been the subject of two jukebox biographies, including 2001’s off-Broadway Love, Janis.

The new kid on the block—already extended in its debut run and certain to end up on Broadway within a year or so—is Berkeley Repertory Theater’s exhilarating and dazzling (and somewhat overstuffed and overlong) Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.

Written by Dominique Morisseau (The Detroit Projects), produced by the hit-making team of Ira Pittelman and Tom Hulce (Spring Awakening, American Idiot), and directed by Des McAnuff (the director of the original Jersey Boys), the show was clearly designed to achieve maximum popular impact and Broadway-and-beyond momentum.

Fueled by a legendary list of songs recorded by the Temptations (“My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Just My Imagination,” “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”), the large Berkeley Rep cast is packed with scene-stealing performers, frequently joining voices or taking solo turns delivering one show-stopping Temptations number after another.

Based on the autobiography of founding member Otis Williams (played brilliantly by Derrick Baskin), the story presents Williams’ perspective over the last 58 years, during which the group has had 24 regular members. The revolving-door nature of the band’s history gives the plot less of an arc than a list of names and personality characteristics, but with performers this talented singing songs this good, the play rises high above its detailed but rather perfunctory storytelling.

The actual “story” of Motown’s mighty Temptations may not be particularly dramatic, but it’s the gloriously recreated music, and those amazing Temptations dance moves that are already making audiences beg for more.

Rating (out of 5): ★★★★