Growing up, Saturday mornings meant completing chores while the music of Motown — Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes and more — piped loudly through the living room speakers. Singing the catchy melodies certainly made the mundane tasks fly by, but when The Temptations’ songs came on, the infectious rhythms spurred everyone in the household to stop and dance.
The Grammy-winning Temptations, one of the most popular R&B groups in the country, had a slew of top hits, including “My Girl,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “Can’t Get Next to You.” They toured the country and later the world while captivating the hearts of their listeners. But in “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” presented by Broadway in Boston through May 1, audiences find out just how much their dream may have cost them. Based on the book “Temptations” by the group’s founder Otis Williams, the exciting narrative follows their rise from Detroit to becoming a household name and getting inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The show — directed at a fast clip by Des McAnuff — thrusts theatergoers at the Citizens Bank Opera House (a just venue considering the first performance is a re-enactment of a gig at the equally opulent Fox Theatre in Detroit) into a concert right away. The play uses the music of the era to highlight certain historical events, such as the civil rights movement, the murder of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and police brutality, and the anguish and demons some of the group’s members battled. Set design by Robert Brill and lighting and the projections of trees, marquis, and rain by Howell Binkley help set the scene and move the show along through time. Throughout the production, Otis (Marcus Paul James) narrates the group’s beginnings and the troubles they faced.
James’ anchoring Otis outlines their urgent motivation to sing, no matter what befalls them: love, heartbreak, addiction and more. The talented cast includes James T. Lane, Harrell Holmes Jr., Jalen Harris and Elijah Ahmad Lewis as the original members of the group, and several more who replaced some of the singers for one reason or another over the years. Later in the show, the audience learns that there were 24 different Temptations.
Watching the production is like jumping on a rapidly moving caboose headed back in time. A lively couple seated nearby talks of how lucky they were to be part of the Motown era while singing and dancing along, and the camaraderie in the audience bred through memory was heartwarming to witness. Kinetic choreography by Sergio Trujillo and the showmanship of the members make it a joy to watch.
Overall, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” is great fun. Not every note is perfect, and the audio could have been clearer at times, but when the tunes slowed down and the performers could just stand flat-footed and sing, their vocals really shined. For instance, the troubled David Ruffin, portrayed beautifully by Lewis, was enigmatic on “(I Know) I’m Losing You),” fully embodying the anguish and swagger of the real-life crooner with the pain-tinged timbre. (Ruffin ultimately died of an overdose in 1991.) Jalen Harris’ falsetto that he brought to the role of Eddie Kendricks quieted the crowd in the achingly soulful rendition of “Just My Imagination,” and David’s replacement Dennis Edwards, portrayed by Harris Matthew, brought the perfect amount of rock-esque rasp in his vocal performance. Other standouts include Shayla Brielle G., who played Tammi Terrell and sang a short but sweetly rendered duet with Lewis’ Ruffin and Josephine (Najah Hetsberger), Otis’ wife, sang a smashing solo that showed off her glorious vocals.
But, finding out that Paul Williams’ alcoholism pushed the group to hire someone to sing for him offstage because he was too drunk to perform or that the early onset of arthritis cut the bellowing bass Melvin Franklin’s touring days short was sobering.
Sometimes, the pacing didn’t allow this showgoer to grieve some of the bad choices and untimely ends of the group’s members or loved ones. The show did convey that the singers in this regaled group, who donned velvet or sequined suits and mastered their dance moves, had an insatiable urge to make music. Otis, the last man standing, says that this dream may have cost them all they had. But, having made it to the top seems like it was enough for them, dancing and singing worldwide. They made music that mattered and that touched generations. And now, more than 50 years after their first hit on Motown Records, it still does.
“Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” presented by Broadway in Boston, runs through May 1 at the Citizens Bank Opera House.