PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Soul Train Musical” Roars into San Francisco

By Barry Willis

A party atmosphere greeted the arrival of Hippest Trip – the Soul Train Musical last week at American Conservatory Theater. Brightly-attired fans spilled out into the street in front of the theater and filled it to capacity for the world premiere of Dominique Morisseau’s dazzling retrospective of the long-running television show and its founder Don Cornelius, wonderfully directed by Kamilah Forbes.

The cast of “HIPPEST TRIP – The Soul Train Musical”. Photo credit: Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello

San Francisco mayor London Breed further amped up the crowd with a high-energy pre-show pep talk delivered from one of the most imaginative sets ever created for a big-production musical: a giant old-school TV set surrounded by extravagant neon in the rich brown and orange of early 1970s psychedelia, running up the walls and onto the ceiling of ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater—a brilliant effort by scenic designer Jason Sherwood.

…one of the most engaging musicals to land in San Francisco this year…

The incredibly confident Quentin Earl Darrington stars as Don Cornelius, a former Chicago journalist who grew tired of producing stories about crime and misery. He envisioned an upbeat dance-and-music show that would uplift his community. Through sheer willpower he made it a reality—first in his home town, then in Los Angeles, and then nationwide. New episodes aired every Saturday, and as Soul Train gained popularity, older episodes were available as re-runs.

Pam Brown (Amber Iman) and Don Cornelius (Quentin Earl Darrington). Photo credit: Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello

Thanks to Cornelius’ tireless campaigning, the show featured top talents from the Stax and Motown labels—acts such as Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Four Tops—and superstars such as James Brown. Soul Train was hugely popular not only with its target market, but with music fans of all varieties. His tireless efforts yielded tremendous results, at the expense of alienating him from his family and ultimately provoking a divorce from his loyal wife Delores, evocatively portrayed by Angela Birchett.

In a resonant baritone, Darrington recites the Cornelius tale in the first person, directly to the audience, while other essential parts of the story are conveyed through what we can only assume are historically accurate sketches—and by lots of spectacular dancing propelled by an equally spectacular band. Kudos to choreographer Camille A. Brown and music supervisor Kenny Seymour.

The musical context is very much linear. The early days of Soul Train were a showcase for 1960s soul music, the favorite genre of the show’s founder and host.

Kayla Davion (Jody Watley) and the cast of “HIPPEST TRIP – The Soul Train Musical”. Photo credit: Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello

Like swing era bandleader Glenn Miller, Cornelius imagined that his preferred music would endure forever, and was dismayed—if not blind-sided—by the rise of disco in the mid-to-late 1970s. Disco was a market disrupter for all kinds of pop music, and Cornelius ultimately relented, promoting disco acts such as the trio Shalamar, whose female singer Jody Watley (Kayla Davion) went on to have a solo career. He was further annoyed by the rise of hip-hop, a genre that originated at the same time as disco but proved to have much more staying power. Disco faded—1979 was reportedly the peak year for sales of vinyl records—but hip-hop and its offshoots remain dominant musical forces today.

Cornelius was further irked by the emergence of New Jack Swing, exemplified by Bobby Brown’s hard-rocking 1980s hit “My Prerogative”—in this show, a music-and-dance performance so stunning that it provoked a spontaneous standing ovation in the second act. This reviewer has attended thousands of productions, but until September 6 had never seen such an outpouring of enthusiasm and appreciation. Opening night was truly astounding.

An obsessed, well-intentioned visionary, Cornelius was nonetheless no angel. One of his sons was estranged, but Tony Cornelius (Sidney Dupont) signed on as his overbearing dad’s apprentice, and gradually worked his way into management of the Soul Train empire, a position he holds today. (A very informative interview between Tony and the playwright is included in the playbill. The real Tony Cornelius was at ACT on opening night, as was Morisseau, who delivered a heartfelt speech at closing.)

Perhaps the worst shortcoming of the elder Cornelius was his refusal to pay Soul Train dancers, even after the show was an undeniable big-ticket hit. He found his initial cadre at a Los Angeles recreation center, where they were being mentored by a kind-hearted woman named Pam Brown (Amber Iman), who became Cornelius’ loyal production assistant. Iman is a wonderfully compelling performer with a glorious singing voice. As with “My Prerogative,” she provoked sustained applause in almost every scene.

Roukijah “NutellaK” Rooks and the cast of “HIPPEST TRIP – The Soul Train Musical”. Photo credit: Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello

There’s a tertiary thread in the show’s narrative where some dancers discuss going on strike until they realize they can’t demand higher wages if they aren’t being paid at all. Spunky dancer Rosie Perez (Mayte Natalio) repeatedly demands a contract, but only with lawyers present, a demand that her boss consistently rebuffs. The tight-fisted Cornelius may have harbored a fear that his eminently seaworthy ship might spring a leak at any moment.

All of this—personal and professional alike—is woven into one of the most engaging musicals to land in San Francisco this year. Both deeply informative and wildly entertaining, Hippest Trip – The Soul Train Musical is a hugely important piece of American cultural history. There aren’t enough stars in our ratings system to shower all the praise it deserves. It is without question the most important show now running in San Francisco.


ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com


ProductionHippest Trip – The Soul Train Musical
Written by Dominique Morisseau
Directed byKamilah Forbes
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater
Production DatesThrough Oct 8th
Production AddressToni Rembe Theater
415 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$25 - $130
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!