WASHINGTON, D.C. — The hottest theater ticket in town may be the smash hit, Hamilton, playing at the Kennedy Center, but the second hottest is definitely for a show just a few doors away.
“Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations” has enough swag, funk and soul in its pre-Broadway run that baby boomers who grew up with the iconic group will be dancing in the streets after leaving the production. With terrific music from the “Legendary Motown Catalog” and superb choreography and acting, “Ain’t Too Proud” is a sizzling, top-notch show that pulls out all the stops in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre and that lovers of all things Motown will not want to miss.
Based on a book by original Temptations founder Otis Williams who, at 78, is still performing today, the musical is an intimate look at the R&B group that became one of the first black crossover artists to crack the white entertainment circuit glass ceiling.
Performing at such venues as the Copacabana and on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the group’s members, mostly poor, started by singing on street corners in Detroit before being signed by legendary Motown founder Berry Gordy. As they climb to the top, we get a look at how fame disrupts their lives and how egos, drugs, sex and the Civil Rights movement impacted the group’s members and those close around them.
Show librettist Dominique Morisseau grew up in Detroit and holds true to William’s account, with the show kicking off with Williams’ memories of leaving Texarkana, Texas moving to Detroit and starting his own group. In time, the soulful baritone would form The Temptations with falsetto Eddie Kendricks, bass Melvin “Blue” Franklin, baritone and choreographer Paul Williams and raspy tenor David Ruffin. Although there have been 24 Temptations to date, these were known as the “Classic Five.”
“Ain’t Too Proud” is directed by Tony Award winner Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys), and McAnuff keeps his talented cast steamrolling along at a frentic and dizzying pace. With 31 songs, including hits such as “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “My Girl,” “Papa was a Rolling Stone,” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” the show’s two hours and 30 minutes strives to cover much territory. This includes introducing women who were involved with the group as wives and lovers, songwriters like Smokey Robinson who penned some of their biggest hits, and issues that took their toll, including divorce, estranged children, family deaths, health issues and addiction.
In the production, the five actors who play the “Classic Five” often seem to be channeling the Tempation that they are portraying and Derrick Baskin is excellent as Otis Williams, narrating the story while singing and dancing to the hilt. Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin is smooth as silk with his James Brown moves and portrayal of Ruffin’s larger than life ego that results in his getting kicked out of the group, only to show up unannounced at concerts and barge onto stage.
Jeremy Pope plays Eddie Kendricks with assuredness and style and Jawan Jackson has a bass that brilliantly mimics Franklin’s deep-throated soul. James Harkness portrays Paul Williams with a sure hand, evoking empathy from the audience as we watch Williams’ sickle cell anemia impact his ability to perform and the tragedy that results later in the play.
Of the musical’s female performers, Rashidra Scott plays Josephine, Otis Williams’ wife, and gives a blistering rendition of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” that had the audience on its feet. Nasia Thomas plays Motown singer Tammi Terrell who dated and was abused by Ruffin, only to later die of brain cancer at the age of 24. Taylor Simone Jackson plays an over the top early female manager of the group and Candice Marie Woods plays Diana Ross from the Supremes, Motown’s other big crossover act.
“Ain’t Too Proud” features dance numbers that take the original Temptation’s smooth moves to another level, and choreographer Sergio Trujillo more than stepped up to the task. With a resume that includes Jersey Boys and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Trujillo has added a pulsating, hipper touch that left the audience constantly applauding. In addition, Robert Brill’s creative set with its rolling sidewalk and Peter Nigrini’s projections that depict race riots, Vietnam War protests, and the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., lend depth to the production.
The show aptly ends with the 11 piece band led by Kenny Seymour appearing on stage to receive their kudos. Run, not walk, to buy tickets to this production which plays through July 22.