‘Hippest Trip: The Soul Train Musical’ dazzles on opening night

American Conservatory Theater's "Hippest Trip: The Soul Train Musical" continues through Oct. 8 at the Toni Rembe Theater. (Courtesy photo)

Even if you’re not a soul music fan, a devotee of big, flashy Broadway musicals or an admirer of playwright Dominique Morisseau—who wrote not only the musical hit about the Temptations, “Ain’t Too Proud,” but also such dramas as “Skeleton Crew” and “Paradise Blue”—and even if you have no nostalgic feelings about the decades-long TV show “Soul Train,” there’s much to admire in “Hippest Trip: The Soul Train Musical,” a bound-for-Broadway world premiere now at American Conservatory Theater.

Among the delights of the show, which was many years in the making: the songs, borrowed from an era that stretches through Motown, rock, disco and right up to the birth of hip-hop, all woven, some more smoothly than others, into a chronologically structured story, with music arranged by Kenny Seymour. 

The jubilant dancing never ends in “Hippest Trip: The Soul Train Musical.” (Courtesy photo)

There is also the jubilant, hyper-athletic dancing that rarely stops for breath, choreographed by the singularly inventive Camille A. Brown and performed by a terrific ensemble. 

And there’s Jason Sherwood’s dynamic scenic design, which includes video on the walls, the proscenium, even on the stage ceiling, from the actual TV show itself and much more—a dizzying, glittering display of color and motion.

Finally, and for some of us this is what we cherish most in theater: There’s the story, of self-made impresario Don Cornelius—a rich, multi-layered portrayal by Quentin Earl Darrington, a Black news reporter who changed his focus to create the famous all-Black TV dance show in an era when Dick Clark’s largely white American Bandstand ruled the airwaves. It’s a story that plays out intermittently, and it’s a time-honored tale of a deeply flawed hero who outlives his own moment in history.

Early on, Cornelius, the intermittent narrator, asks, rhetorically, “Who gets to own this legacy?” By the end of two acts (two and a half hours), the answer is a well-earned one.

“Hippest Trip: The Soul Train Musical” is a dazzling spectacle and a story worth telling. (Courtesy photo)

Morisseau crams a lot—too much, in fact—into her script. In the overlong first act, we follow Cornelius and his righthand woman, Pam Brown—an intriguing character, beautifully played by Amber Iman, and one who actually deserves more stage time, from the East Coast to greener pastures in Hollywood. Along the way we get a too-brief glimpse of the dissolution of Cornelius’s marriage; we see the young dancers’ burgeoning dissatisfaction with performing for free, calling to mind the current writers’ and actors’ strikes; we learn a bit about Cornelius’s rivalry with Dick Clark, who attempted to co-opt Cornelius’s all-Black vision; and more, including the specter of disco on the horizon. 

The much shorter second act features several new dance genres that Cornelius hated, including New Jack Swing, and to see Cornelius react to the new dance-world order is for the most part deeply affecting. Here was a bold visionary who, like so many heroes in history and fiction, outlived his moment in time.

There’s a cartoony feeling to the performances in the first few scenes—and an overwhelming assault of noise, glitter and motion—but as the musical continues, director Kamilah Forbes draws deep, rich performances as well as strong singing and dancing from the players.

The show highlights an era of music that stretches through Motown, rock, disco and right up to the birth of hip-hop. (Courtesy photo)

Among the especially poignant scenes: a few between Don and his devoted son, Tony, played by Sidney DuPont (Tony is mentioned in the program as executive producer, and was present in the opening-night audience); an encounter between a feisty Rosie Perez (played by Mayte Natalio) and Cornelius; and just about any scene involving the emotionally withdrawn Cornelius and Pam Brown. 

Hopefully the script will be tightened before the show reaches Broadway—some scenes feel extraneous or just too abbreviated to be satisfying, and Cornelius’s pronouncements about his vision tend to be repetitive—but Morisseau and team’s new musical is a dazzling spectacle and a story worth telling, whether or not Soul Train fits into your cultural frame of reference.

American Conservatory Theater’s “Hippest Trip: The Soul Train Musical” continues through Oct. 8 at Toni Rembe Theater, located at 415 Geary Street, in San Francisco. Tickets for the show start at $25 and can be purchased by calling (415) 749-2228 or visiting act-sf.org

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