Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Hippest Trip - The Soul Train Musical
Hippest Trip is a powerhouse of a musical: vividly colorful, with spectacular dancing, thrilling performances, and lots and lots of incredible music, from soul and funk to new jack swing and hip-hop. When the ultra-tight, ultra-skilled orchestra was playing, and the young cast were displaying their energetic, powerful moves (from choreographer Camille A. Brown), I felt every member of the audience was on the edge of their seat, ready to leap up and start dancing in the aisles.
Until, that is, the music stops and we hear the story–in strict chronological order–of Don Cornelius, the entrepreneur and longtime host (for virtually all of its three-decade run on television) of "Soul Train," a phenomenon that brought black culture into the living rooms and dens of nearly every household in the country. Bookwriter Dominique Morisseau, who has written some terrific plays (including Skeleton Crew and Detroit 67), seems to have trouble with stories that aren't her own, specifically Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, which I first saw when it opened its pre-Broadway run at Berkeley Rep and later when it returned to the Bay Area on its national tour. In the first production, I felt Morisseau's book was overly cumbersome, with needless exposition, and needed to be cut by 20-30 minutes. The book had changed significantly by the time the tour started, but even though quite a lot had been cut from its first run, new elements had been added and the show was still 20-30 minutes too long.
And that's the problem here. Do we really need to spend time on the competition between "Soul Train" and Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" and Clark's attempt to steal Cornelius's thunder with his own "Soul Unlimited" show? Though that segment illustrates Cornelius's territoriality–he's a mountain lion driving competitors off his range–that competitiveness and drive is woven throughout Hippest Trip, and it begins to feel like Morisseau is pounding a nail that is already fully driven in and she's only denting the board with her hammer blows.
Fortunately, there is the music and the dancing, and some truly amazing performances. As Pam Brown, Cornelius's talent coordinator, Amber Iman positively vibrates with energy in every scene. Her Pam Brown stands up to Cornelius with undeniable confidence. She has a sneaky sort of swagger that feels gentle and polite at first, but that will surprise you with its ferocity. She is the embodiment of one of Cornelius's tag lines: "Let folks underestimate you, but never underestimate yourself."
That the dancing is brilliant and inventive and bursting with life feels like a pre-requisite for a show that defined dance culture over decades. But Hippest Trip meets and even exceeds that pre-requisite and moves on to post-graduate work. The cast are all terrific, but two kept seizing my attention. Alain "Hurrikane" Lauture shows exactly why popping and locking was such a phenomenon in the 1980s and '90s: his moves are both precise and free-flowing. San Francisco native Sequoia doesn't have the build one would normally expect from a Broadway chorus boy, but boy can he move. Even after two-plus hours of near constant effort, he still manages to pull off a back handspring near the end of act two.
As Cornelius, Quentin Earl Darrington is onstage for almost every minute of Hippest Trip, and he owns the stage. It's clear in every moment that Cornelius is in charge, making all the calls. In Morisseau's book, Cornelius is a man with a vision. In an early stint as a news radio announcer, Cornelius lets us know he doesn't "want to be known for only spreading bad news." His goal with "Soul Train" was to highlight Black culture in a way that mainstream America simply wasn't seeing. Some of the most interesting aspects of the story focus on Cornelius's striving to create a space where Black culture and Black commerce could break through the wall of whiteness that was American media in the '60s.
Cornelius is a complex character, and he doesn't come off as the most upstanding citizen. Despite his good intentions, his flawed humanity is on display as well. He's a failed husband, a failed father, and a difficult, domineering boss. He gets things done, but his story is ultimately both tragedy and triumph.
Despite the limitations of Morisseau's overly fat book, director Kamilah Forbes does her best to keep the action moving briskly forward. She is aided in this by a near perfect set (by Jason Sherwood) that is dominated by a proscenium rendered as a television frame, with channel and volume knobs, as though the set had been designed by Magnavox. Spreading outward from this frame are several curlicue projection surfaces that put me in mind of the colorful steam that issued from the animated train that opened each episode of the show.
Ultimately, it's the dancing and the music that are the real stars here. Music supervisor (and orchestrator and arranger) Kenny Seymour keeps the beat moving as we ride the train through the decades. When Cornelius looks back on his life, he tells us "Heaven is soul and funk, hell is new jack swing." Ironically, it's the new jack swing hit "My Prerogative" that is the only number that got the audience on its feet in riotous applause as its last percussive beat faded away.
Hippest Trip has a lot of work to do on its journey to Broadway, but even with its flaws, it's a glorious ride.
Hippest Trip - The Soul Train Musical plays through October 8, 2023, at American Conservatory Theater, Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets range from $25-$137. For tickets and information, please visit www.act-sf.org.