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Soul Train

Ah, to be a mere dance writer reviewing a world premiere musical with Broadway aspirations! The sheer luxury of letting myriad small problems of dramaturgy and pacing roll right by as you wait in the midst of a pumped-up, dressed-to-the-nines, celebrity-studded audience for the next ensemble dance number that will bring the house down!

Performance

“Hippest Trip: The Soul Train Musical”

Place

Toni Rembe Theater, American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco, CA, September 6, 2023

Words

Rachel Howard

The cast performing “Hippest Trip—The Soul Train Musical.” Photograph by Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello

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“Hippest Trip: The Soul Train Musical” had its long-awaited opening night at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, after five years of development and many a pandemic-induced delay. The movie star Blair Underwood was walking the red carpet. Roots frontman and music legend Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, one of the show’s executive producers, was down in the orchestra seats. San Francisco mayor London Breed strutted onstage in a fire engine red pantsuit worthy of a trip down the Soul Train line to work up our enthusiasm. Then the lights exploded, and “Soul Train” host and creator Don Cornelius (played by Quentin Earl Darrington) rose through a hidden trap door wearing his fly powder-blue suit. Soon after the train left the station, one thing was clear: If this show makes it to the Great White Way in spring 2024, as it has set out to do, the triumph will be thanks to choreographer Camille A. Brown.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be notable in a musical about “Soul Train,” which over its 36 years on television was always driven by dancing, from its zenith of Black joy in the 1970s through its slow slide to irrelevance as first disco and then hip hop rose in the 1980s and 90s. But “Hippest Trip” has an odd internal conflict. Among its plot points is that Don Cornelius’s enterprise runs on sheer dance talent, yet Cornelius refuses to pay those dance talents with anything more than mere “exposure” while continuing to pressure standout performers, like Rosie Perez, into signing their business interests over to him. In the world of the musical, the dancers should win. But Cornelius is this show’s hero, and the storyline works with what his biography dictates. Cornelius never gave the dancers their share, despite the intercessionary pleas of legendary talent manager Pam Brown. He never repented, but instead withdrew to recover from a brain aneurysm alone, refused to hand the show over to his son (who could have helped it keep up with the times), and then committed suicide, in 2012, at the age of 75.

Roukijah “NutellaK” Rooks and the cast of “Hippest Trip—The Soul Train Musical.” Photograph by Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello

So “Hippest Trip: The Soul Train Musical,” with its book by Dominique Morisseau, is stuck with a hell of a problem: It wants to uplift Don’s revolutionary achievement of spotlighting Black joy—as it should. But it’s working with a character who never did make it to personal redemption.

Do I buy the resolution the musical wants to force on us at the end, as the dancers shake their heads and remember Don fondly and say that despite it all, he was a father to them? Not quite. Do I think the dancing raised the roof and kept me happy to chug along through two hours and forty minutes of a less-than-full-steam storyline? Hell yes.    

Let us take a moment, then, to give Camille A. Brown and the dancers their roses.

Brown is a living vessel of social dance history known for her concert dance trilogy that launched with “Black Girl: Linguistic Play,” as well as for her Tony-nominated work choreographing and directing “for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf,” so it’s a given she would ace this assignment. That didn’t make watching the results less fun. The highpoint of Act One is a ripping ensemble number to “Brick House” dramatizing dancer Jody Watley’s first “Soul Train” appearance. As Watley, Kayla Davion brought the energy. (If only Act One had ended there, at a natural applause point rather than slogging on through what Cornelius calls “fuckin’ disco,” then carrying us all the way through “Soul Train’s” first five years. At which point the whole audience thinks, “We’ve only made it five years?”) As for Act Two, the literal show-stopper is a full cast New Jack Swing number to Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative,” with Sidney Dupont, who plays Don’s son Tony Cornelius, showcasing a surprising aptitude for rockin’ the Reebok while the ensemble hits the Running Man behind him.

Amber Iman (Pam Brown) and Quentin Earl Darrington (Don Cornelius) in  “Hippest Trip—The Soul Train Musical.” Photograph by Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello

In between, prime members of “Soul Train” dance royalty get their due. Tall, liquid, and working his rollerskates as well as his moonwalk, Broadway veteran Jaquez steals many a scene as “Soul Train” anchor (and later, pop group Shalamar member) Jeffrey Daniel. Richard James waacks and slides as Tyrone “The Bone” Proctor. Alain “Hurrikane” Lauture spins through most of the breakdancing as Don Campellock, and Charlene “Chi-Chi” Smith lends an easy bounce to Damita Jo Freeman. Perhaps the most notable breakout performance is that of San Francisco School of the Arts graduate SeQuoiia, who doesn’t have a named role but commands the stage with his unforced confidence and rhythmic sharpness.

Oh, and there’s singing in all this, too, though “Hippest Trip’s” mélange of hits doesn’t give its vocal stars many opportunities to unfurl their full abilities over more than a snippet of song. That can’t hold back the brandy-voiced prowess of seasoned Broadway star Amber Iman. She has the climactic ballad (Oleta Adams’ “Get Here If You Can”), and when her symphonic vibrato crescendos and then pulls back the sound to a perfect spinning pinpoint, you know what live singing was meant to be.

Her role could have been bigger, more dimensional. In a different treatment, Pam Brown and the dancers she advocated for wouldn’t have to shrug off the complicated truth.  

At the beginning of “Hippest Trip,” Don Cornelius himself asks the question: “Who gets to own this legacy? The one who founded it? The one who risked everything? Or the dancers?”

His answer is as quick as his character arc is thwarted: “The public will be the judge.”   

 

Kayla Davion (Jody Watley) and the cast of performing “Hippest Trip—The Soul Train Musical.” Photograph by Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello

Rachel Howard


Rachel Howard is the former lead dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Her dance writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Hudson Review, Ballet Review, San Francisco Magazine and Dance Magazine.

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