Theater Review: HIPPEST TRIP–THE SOUL TRAIN MUSICAL (Pre-Broadway World Premiere at A.C.T.’s Toni Rembe Theatre in San Francisco)

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by Chuck Louden on September 9, 2023

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Officially starting A.C.T.’s 23/24 Season is the Broadway-bound world premiere musical based on the iconic TV Show Soul Train, which opened last Wednesday at the Toni Rembe Theater. Several years in the making, the jukebox musical Hippest Trip — The Soul Train Musical traces the story of radio DJ Don Cornelius’s journey to produce the first show for black people by black people.

Quentin Earl Darrington (Don Cornelius)
with McKenzie Frye and Alain “Hurrikane” Lauture

Soul Train debuted on a small UHF television show in Chicago in October 1971. It lasted 36 years until March 2006. At the time, American Bandstand was the only game in town to showcase the top songs, artists and dances of the day. That show featured mostly white artists catering to a mostly white audience. Don Cornelius (Quentin Earl Darrington) wanted to change all that. He recognized the need for black artists and dancers to be seen and exposed on television. Also of course at the time, the producers and executives were all white. Don called in favors and begged producers to let him produce his own show, starting out with his own hand picked black in studio dancers.

Quentin Earl Darrington (Don) and Angela Birchett (Delores)

He befriended Pam Brown (Amber Inman) who worked with the local youth at teen centers Pam helped pick out the most talented dancers and ultimately became one of his producers. Their working relationship lasted throughout his entire time producing Soul Train. Pam tries to act as The Greek Chorus or Don’s moral compass as he often seemed to put his own success above the needs of the cast and crew. The show was a big hit and within a year relocated to Los Angeles and nationwide syndication.

The Cast

As the years went on the pressure of keeping the show current and relevant takes its toll on Don. His family fades into the background.  Don’s first wife Dolores (Angela Birchett) and son Tony (Sidney DuMont) fight a losing battle for his attention. Their strong performances and powerful voices aren’t able to get through to the single-focused Don Cornelius.

Roukijah “NutellaK” Rooks and the cast

Over the years there are of course break out stars among the dancers including Jody Watley (Kayla Davion) and Rosie Perez (Mayte Natalo) who challenge Don’s control over all of his dancers. Keeping up with the changing phase of music through the end of the 20th century as well as keeping control of his empire gradually took their toll on Cornelius. His conservative tastes in pop music, against the changing times and will of his staff and dancers, have Don fighting Disco and later on the whole Hip Hop culture (which just hit its 50th anniversary).

Alain “Hurrikane” Lauture and the cast

The Soul Train songs literally had the audience swaying — and sometimes singing along — throughout the show. Camille A. Brown‘s well-choreographed numbers cover over three decades of music. Staples of pop culture and the music industry include “Brickhouse”, “I Will Survive”, “Wrappers Delight”, “Theme from Shaft”, “Walk on By”, “Funky Town” and “September.” One after another, the show-stopping numbers kept coming, thanks to the phenomenal dancers’ exuberant energy, acrobatic spins and flips, and powerhouse vocal talents.

Quentin Earl Darrington (Don Cornelius)

As Soul Train maintains its popularity on television, Don Cornelius seems to slowly come apart at the seams. Director Kamilah Forbes strikes the right balance of the dancing with the drama, which never seems heavy-handed in the book by Dominique Morisseau (Broadway’s Ain’t Too Proud).

Quentin Earl Darrington (Don Cornelius)
with (L-R) Rich James, Kayla Davion, and Aché Richardson

DeDe Ayite’s costume design brings us back to the days of bell bottom jeans, form-fitting polyester pants and psychedelic tops in neon colors. Later on, the colorful sequins of the disco era — complete with the glittering disco balls — capture the late 70s perfectly. Black leather jackets and pants signify Hip Hop’s seemingly angry message in its music. Set designer Jason Sherwood cleverly has the drama unfold inside a giant television set in dazzling colors with the familiar Soul Train logo.

Kayla Davion (Jody Watley)

At just over two hours, the show covers a lot of ground and nearly four decades of music. As such, there’s not a dull moment or superfluous scene in the entire show. From a nostalgic point of view alone, it’s exciting to relive a particular time in history involving both television and music. The appeal of the show though is not just for aging baby boomers. This is a compelling story, and the sights and sounds will please all ages. With dazzling music supervision and orchestrations by Kenny Seymour, I would say that adding even more time to the musical numbers would not hurt the show at all. It’s definitely going places, and in this case, straight to Broadway after its initial run here at A.C.T. in San Francisco. I predict that a year or two from now, Hippest Trip — The Soul Train Musical will be getting lots of attention at The Tony Awards.

photos by Kevin Berne

Hippest Trip — The Soul Train Musical
A.C.T.’s Toni Rembe Theatre, 415 Geary Street in San Francisco
ends on October 8, 2023
for tickets, call 415-749-2228 or visit A.C.T.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Patty B. September 14, 2023 at 10:39 am

Wow Wow Wow—- loved everything about this show!!! Didn’t want it to end!!!!!
Such energy, great music, talented singers, and the dancers!!!! Wow, wow, wow!!! Going to see it again before it’s gone.


Marla Dell September 30, 2023 at 7:23 pm

I loved Soul Train. I loved the dancers, the musical guests and THE man DC.

This show was really fun, and the music, dancers and acting was truly spectacular.

I am a Boomer and watched forever and still feel strongly that the show had all the right moves and sound for the decades it presented.


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