Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of On the Town
Ain't Too Proud follows the history of the Temptations, the Motown quintet still performing after more than 50 years, from the perspective of Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin), the only original member still performing with the group; Williams' book was the basis for the musical's book by Dominique Morisseau. He talks about how the group released 24 singles before hitting the charts and says, portentously, "We made history together, but there's no progress without sacrifice." Fortunately, McAnuff's direction and Morisseau's writing keep things from getting too grim.
Baskin provides the throughline, but Ephraim Sykes brings lightning to the stage as David Ruffin, the lead singer whose ego ultimately overshadows his talent. Sykes has a voice that commands respect and an amazing way with Trujillo's dance moves, specifically the way he can go into and out of a split in seconds. The rest of the "original five" lineup are James Harkness as sensitive Paul Williams (no relation to Otis), deep-voiced Jawan M. Jackson as Melvin Franklin, and smooth Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendricks.
The plot follows the Temptations through both personal difficulties and political upheavals. "Outside, the world was exploding, and inside, so were we," Otis says: as Detroit fell to riots, the group wanted to take on more controversial material, but Motown boss Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) was more interested in maintaining their crossover appeal. Along the way, group members dealt with cocaine addiction, alcoholism, and chronic illness, disagreements over billing and salaries, even the possibility that two former members would try to form a rival group using the Temptations namebut the music and the sleek, synchronized choreography are what's really important.
The production design looks ready for Broadway: Robert Brill's scenic design finds numerous ways to use a limited number of set pieces, Howell Binkley's lighting design and Peter Nigrini's projection design bring scenes of life outside the studio into focus, and Paul Tazewell's costumes are dead-on, from a succession of well-tailored suits in vivid colors for the Temptations to the glittering, form-fitting gowns for the Supremes. Music director Kenny Seymour leads an impassioned orchestra through more than 30 Motown classics and is part of a staging trick during the finale that demands a standing ovation.