If history, as they say, is written by the victors, it may also be written the survivors, and in this musical at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles the Temptations’ story is told by the sole surviving original Temp, one Otis Williams. They are all equal contributors, of course, but David Ruffin is a diva, Eddie Kendrick a hothead, Paul Williams an alcoholic – it is only Otis that, after founding the group, keeps it together, handles the business and ensures the legacy. It so happens I’d never heard of Otis Williams and wouldn’t mind his hogging the spotlight because I’d come for the Temptations’ music, not their personalities. That was the first problem, starting with the opening number: the singing just wasn’t as good as the original, and while the songs brought back wonderful memories, they left me wishing I could hear the actual Temptations. There was no need for the actor playing David Ruffin to jazz up the lead on “My Girl”: he wasn’t going to improve on perfection. Most of the numbers, furthermore, were truncated, giving us their flavor, not their power.
The book was a cliche: boys picked up off the street, become a huge hit, success goes to their heads, make a comeback, fall apart in individual tragedies. No issue was much more than one or two lines of dialogue deep, whether it was a heroin habit, a fiery romance, competition with The Supremes or a neglected son at home. As a result, there was no emotional pull, just waiting for the next number. All the good songs -my opinion – came before 1967 and fell in Act I, which left me doubtful about Act II. That dealt with the more serious side of life, and their music. I didn’t think much of late Temptations – “Ball of Confusion,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” – but mercifully the second act was shorter and you could always feel we were heading toward the end. Amazingly, with all the great classics by the Temptations, the show never has a knockout musical moment, and when we do get to the end we are serenaded not with a Temptations hit but a song made famous by David Ruffin’s brother Jimmy, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.” A later version of the Temptations apparently sang a poorer version of this song 40 years after the original hit, but few, if any, in the audience will know that, and it is a strange note to close the night with.
I will say it was fun to see the actors in full Temptations suits performing the smooth dance routines that were so much a part of the Temps’ appeal. After a while, though, it got a bit monotonous. When the lead singer does a split for the first time, you go ‘wow.’ The third time he does it, though, you go ‘really?’ The songs by other performers were well done, less predictable and refreshing – “Gloria,” “Shout,” “Speedo,” “You Can’t Hurry Love” – and made me wonder, how was this show different from “Motown: The Musical”? That, at least, got to Broadway. I doubt this will.