‘Ain’t Too Proud’: The Temptations’ story on stage

(L – R)- Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Marcus Paul James, Jalen Harris, Harrell Holmes Jr., James T. Lane from the National Touring Company of Ain’t Too Proud. Credit: © 2021 Emilio Madrid.

BOSTON –Some theater purists early on sneered at shows that became known as “jukebox musicals,” complete with ready-made scores generated by the subject – or subjects – of the piece.

Early examples included “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story,” and “Forever Plaid,” both of which gave 1950s music another chance to shine.

But it was the astounding success of “Mama Mia!” and the music of Abba that vaulted the genre into the stratosphere, and following its success came other winners such as “Jersey Boys” and “Beautiful.”

Having tasted success as the director of “Jersey Boys,” Des McAnuff has returned to a different jukebox — an R&B one – to direct the national touring production of “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” now being performed under the auspices of Broadway in Boston through May 1 at the Citizens Bank Opera House.

It is a flashy, oft-spectacular blend of the best of Motown, a passel of wonderful voices, and knockout choreography from Sergio Trujillo that captured the 2019 Tony Award.

Most of the successful jukebox musicals have boasted strong storytelling – Mama Mia!” is a notable exception – and the book of “Ain’t Too Proud” is by noted Detroit playwright Dominique Morisseau, whose knowledge of her hometown lends an air of authenticity to the piece, largely set in the city.

Her script was adapted from Otis Williams’ 1988 memoir and eventually spans almost 60 years from the group’s founding to the present day; there have been 24 different Temptations during that span.

As with “Jersey Boys,” The Temptations’ story is told through the eyes of one character – in this case, Otis Williams (Marcus Paul James), a founding member of the group still performing today who had bounced around in the Detroit music scene before finding a kindred soul with a beautiful bass voice named Melvin Franklin (Harrell Holmes Jr.).

The National Touring Company of Ain’t Too Proud. Credit: © 2021 Emilio Madrid.

They recruit the golden-voiced Eddie Kendricks (Jalen Harris) and Paul Williams (James T. Lane) and after the original leader singer is bounced, persuade David Ruffin (Elijah Ahmad Lewis) to come aboard. The group was finally ready to take off.

But after the takeoff comes the trappings of success – conflict, bruised egos, addiction, the stresses of life on the road. Williams’ original vision of “five equal brothers,” the lineup that brought the group to stardom, eventually fractured under the weight of Ruffin’s drugs and abuse of Tammi Terrell (Shayla Brielle G.)  and Kendricks’ solo ambitions.

When Ruffin was bounced from the group, Dennis Edwards (Harris Mattthew) became lead singer and the group coalesced once again into a formidable musical machine.

But they also cross swords with Motown mogul Berry Gordy (Michael Andraeus) and singer/songwriter Smokey Robinson (Lawrence Dandridge), who aim to make The Temptations into the ultimate crossover act – even in a segregated South.

Motown icons such as The Supremes (Deri’andra Tucker, Shayla Brielle G. and Traci Elaione Lee), who revolved in the same orbit, also compete for the same attention The Temptations sought.

Even amidst the social unrest going on around them, member of the group chafe as they are told to eschew politics and activism along the way in order to attract white audiences and gain traction on such popular shows as “American Bandstand.”  

Meanwhile, with singers coming and going and threatening to inject too much angst into the proceedings, the music and dancing swoop in to save the day with the high-stepping smoothness of Trujillo’s gorgeous movement performed in Paul Tazewell’s glorious costumes.

For the most part, the 31 musical numbers from what the producers call “The Legendary Motown Catalog” are presented effectively and thankfully no effort is made to  match numbers with events happening onstage. The silky sounds of such hits as “My Girl,” “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” and “Just My Imagination,” are in the good hands of an excellent orchestra led by music director/conductor Jonathan “Smitti” Smith.

At one point, narrator Otis Williams will proudly note that while he is the last man standing form those who first took the stage as The Temptations, the real survivor is – as it always is – the music.

But that will not stop McAnuff and Co. from paying tribute in the finale to all The Temptations past and present who have proudly been part of the Grammy-winning troupe that eventually saw six members —  Edwards, Franklin, Kendricks, Ruffin, Otis Williams and Paul Williams — inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.

The national touring production of “Ain’t too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations.” Book by Dominique Morisseau, based on “The Temptations,” by Otis Williams with Patricia Romanowski. Music and lyrics from The Legendary Motown Catalog. Directed by Des McAnuff. Scenic design by Robert Brill. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy. Projection design by Peter Nigrini. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. At the Citizens Bank Opera House through May 1. Boston.broadway.com