Growing up, Saturday mornings meant doing chores while Motown music — Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes and more — blared through the living room speakers. Singing the catchy melodies certainly made the mundane tasks pass, but when the Temptations songs arrived, the infectious beats made everyone in the house stop and dance.
The Grammy-winning Temptations, one of the nation’s most popular R&B acts, have had a slew of hits, including “My Girl,” “Daddy Was a Rolling Stone” and “Can’t Get Next to You”. They toured the country and later the world while capturing the hearts of their listeners. But in “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of Temptations”, presented by Broadway in Boston until May 1, the public discovers how much their dream could cost them. Based on the book “Temptations” by band founder Otis Williams, the thrilling tale follows their rise from Detroit to become a household name and inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The show – set to a quick clip by Des McAnuff – thrusts audiences from the Citizens Bank Opera House (a fair venue given that the first performance is a re-enactment of a concert at the equally lavish Fox Theater in Detroit) into a concert while right now . The piece uses music from the era to highlight certain historical events, such as the civil rights movement, the murder of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and police brutality, as well as the angst and demons some band members have fought. Set design by Robert Brill and lighting and projections of trees, marquees and rain by Howell Binkley help set the scene and move the show forward in time. Throughout production, Otis (Marcus Paul James) recounts the band’s early days and the problems they faced.
James’ anchor Otis describes their urgent motivation to sing, no matter what happens to 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 band members, and several others who have replaced some of the vocalists 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 into a fast-moving caboose that travels back in time. A lively couple seated nearby talk about how lucky they were to be part of the Motown era while singing and dancing, and the camaraderie in the audience nurtured by memory was heartwarming to see. Sergio Trujillo’s kinetic choreography and the members’ showmanship make it a joy to watch.
Overall, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” is great fun. Not all the notes are perfect, and the audio could have been clearer at times, but when the tunes slowed down and the performers could just stand and sing, their voices really shone. For example, the troubled David Ruffin, beautifully played by Lewis, was enigmatic on “(I Know) I’m Losing You)”, fully embodying the anguish and swagger of the real pain-tinged crooner. (Ruffin eventually died of an overdose in 1991.) The Jalen Harris falsetto he brought to the role of Eddie Kendricks calmed the crowd in the painfully moving rendition of “Just My Imagination,” and the replacement for David, Dennis Edwards, played by Harris Matthew, brought the perfect amount of rock rasp into his vocal performance. Other stars included Shayla Brielle G., who played Tammi Terrell and sang a short but beautifully rendered duet with Lewis’s Ruffin and Josephine (Najah Hetsberger), Otis’ wife, sang a smashing solo that showed his glorious voice.
But discovering that Paul Williams’ alcoholism caused the band to hire someone to sing for him offstage because he was too drunk to play or the early onset of arthritis cut short the Melvin Franklin’s tour days were sobering.
Sometimes the pacing didn’t allow this viewer to mourn some of the bad choices and untimely endings of the band members or their loved ones. The show revealed that the singers of this regaled group, who wore velvet or sequined costumes and mastered their dance moves, had an insatiable urge to make music. Otis, the last man standing, says that dream may have cost them everything they had. But, having reached the top seems to be enough for them, dancing and singing all over the world. They made music that mattered and touched generations. And now, more than 50 years after their first success on Motown Records, it still is.
“Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of Temptationspresented by Broadway in Boston, will continue until May 1 at the Citizens Bank Opera House.