A first-rate jukebox musical must have a strong story and the Broadway hit “Ain’t too proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations” does. Based by Detroit playwright Dominique Morisseau on “The Temptations” by member Otis Williams (now 80 and the sole surviving original) with Patricia Romanowski, the show’s book presents a narrative as absorbing and adoring as that of “The Jersey Boys” (2004) for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
In both cases, in fact, the musical not only explores the development of the group but also gives significant time to the pivotal management – here by Shelly Berger – that assured the success and the respect the performers deserved. Now a stellar national tour at the Citizen Bank Opera House is bringing big voices and eye-catching moves to the signature way the Temptations did the things they did.
As with the evolving “The Jersey Boys,” “Ain’t too proud” returns to the early days (1964) with Otis Williams and the Distants. Berry Gordy of Motown fame would stress the need for original material, not just covers. Williams would speak of David Ruffin’s showmanship, Eddie Kendricks’ crooning, Paul Williams’ soul and Melvin Franklin’s favoring of the color blue. Ruffin’s flash would stand out on “My Girl,” their first of many number one hits. Soon the group would perform alongside The Supremes.
All of the Temptations’ formative accomplishments notwithstanding, the entry of Jewish manager Shelly Berger proved crucial. Berger – who also worked with Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson and remains involved with the current incarnation of the group (there have been 24 Temptations since the beginning) – would get them “into rooms no one can” (like the Copacabana) and “make sure things are running smoothly.” Eventually he would bring them to NBC alongside the Supremes – kudos there to designer Paul Tazewell’s elegant costumes. Berger also made sure that the African-American quintet perform in front of fully integrated audiences.
As the group learns of the assassination of Martin Luther King, designer Peter Nigrini’s notable projection provides a vivid backdrop image of the great leader. South of the Mason Dixon line, the Temptations repeatedly hear the N-word and even confront gun-shots.
There is also conflict within the group – especially between Otis and David. While Berger sees Otis as “the backbone of the group, David calls himself “the steering wheel of the group.” Particularly in the edgier second act, problems with alcohol and cocaine threaten the health of both the group and individual members. Gradually Otis comes to grips with the cost of being an on-the-road parent and faces family tragedy – though the show’s book could do more with the portrayal of his often-lonely wife Josephine.
Still, “ain’t too proud” convincingly demonstrates the brotherhood of “The Foundation” – the original five—and the style and strength of the Temptations even now. Under the tight direction of Des McAnuff and the crack choreography of Sergio Trujillo (a well-deserved Tony winner) and electrifying dancing, all of the group’s famed numbers soar at the Opera – with “Just My Imagination” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” clear standouts. Marcus Paul James displays all of Otis’ seriousness and authority. Elijah Ahmad Lewis sings robustly on David’s breakout renditions. Reed Campbell is properly professional and protective as Berger.
Otis reflects that “the music lives forever.” The terrific tour of “Ain’t too proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations” and the snappy show itself fully live up to that estimation.
“Ain’t too proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” runs through May 1 at the Citizen Bank Opera House, Boston.