A group of uncommonly gifted vocalists that found enormous success in the 1960s, ‘70s, and beyond, even as they cycled through multiple reinventions, defections, and personal dramas.
The story of the Four Seasons debuted on Broadway as Jersey Boys in 2005 and ran for 12 years before expanding into multiple national and international touring runs. (Drop a pin on a globe and some Boy somewhere is probably onstage mid-“Big Girls Don’t Cry,” even if you’re in pajamas.)
Now another ambitious jukebox musical — Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations — lands just a few blocks over, equally bright and shiny and stacked with beloved, time-worn hits.
The storyline is broad, almost by necessity; how else could Tony-winning director Des McAnuff (yes, he also helmed Jersey) cover nearly 60 years, 24 members, and an almost uncountable number of songs in two and a half hours, with intermission? Robert Brill’s staging is functionally spare, almost industrial; largely black and white, gilded only with occasional slide-in touches (a classic convertible, a row of urinals) to signify scene changes.
What makes Beg memorable is the sheer overwhelming talent of the cast. Even if no one character has enough time or space in the script to fill in the contours of a full personality beyond a few fast details — baritone Otis Williams liked his suits electric blue; Falsetto king Eddie Kendricks got the nickname Corn because he… loved cornbread! — they can still bring every sweet harmony and cross-step.
As the original five Temptations, Derrick Baskin (Otis Williams), James Harkness (Paul Williams), Jawan M. Jackson (Melvin Franklin), Jeremy Pope (Eddie Kendricks) and Ephraim Sykes (David Ruffin) move gracefully through a functional book by Dominique Morrisseau, covering all the bases of the group’s innumerable ups and downs.
But when the music starts, they’re flying: snapping and sashaying through the light-fantastic choreography of Sergio Trujillo (he did Jersey Boys as well, plus Memphis, Guys and Dolls, and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical); and making silky work of a vast catalog that includes “My Girl,” “Get Ready,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” and scores of singles from the Temptations’ contemporaries, like “Shout” and “Still of the Night.”
A stentorian Jahi Kearse drops in as Motown Records head Berry Gordy; Christian Thompson is a seductive Smokey Robinson who also doubles as later Temptation Damon Harris. Women are mostly relegated to small supporting roles, as the Supremes (who get a few great musical numbers at least, and a whole lot of sequins), Tami Tarrell (played by the supple-voiced Nasia Thomas, doing her own triple duty), various girlfriends and spurned spouses.
For all the happiness their music brought the world, the Temptations’ own lives were famously marked by tragedy and often cut much too short; executive producer Otis Williams is also the lone surviving member. It’s hard to feel the real impact of those losses — or the issues of racism, addiction, and domestic violence it touches on only briefly — in a show that has to cover so much ground.
But it’s also hard to remember a closing as joyful as the one Beg builds to, when every cast member emerges in three-piece white suits for one last number — bringing the crowd to their feet for a finale that felt less like a sustained standing ovation than a dance party, and an ecstatic celebration. B+