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"Hippest Trip: The Soul Train Musical," show #871

Two things can be true at the same time. Don Cornelius was an often revered man who made Soul Train, a television show celebrating music from black artists, not just exist but thrive. Don Cornelius was also a notorious villain to many who dealt with him and were victim of his infidelities, temper, and behavior. Hippest Trip: The Soul Train Musical doesn’t seek to resolve this layered legacy, but rather give focus to what lived beyond Don’s life by way of Soul Train and his son, Tony, while gifting audiences with a purely celebratory explosion of dance from Soul Train’s multi-decade tenure. With a strong book by Dominique Morisseau, fun orchestrations and arrangements by Kenny Seymour, and thrilling choreography by Camille A. Brown, Hippest Trip has the makings of a stunning jukebox musical.

(Amber Iman (Pam) and Quentin Earl Darrington (Don); Photo credit: Kevin Berne and Alessandra Mello)

Led by a powerfully charismatic and commanding Quentin Earl Darrington as Don, the musical appears to have Soul Train as its star led by the story of Don. Darrington’s vocals are incredibly well-served in both ballad and upbeat covers. Darrington carries the heavy load of the plot-driven book, replete with great scene work opposite a strong Amber Iman as Pam Brown, Angela Birchett as a stalwart first wife to Don, Delores, and especially in song opposite Sidney Dupont as Tony Cornelius. Darrington and Dupont share a roof-shattering duet of “O-o-h Child” towards the end of the second act that shows the glimmer of character vulnerability Morriseau’s book thrives in, when it appears. Structurally, the first act does much to give audiences context to the popular dance styles in the 1970s onward, the creation and rise of Soul Train, and how Don had to claw his way upward constantly. The second act provides far more relationship-driven plot, some at the expense of director Kamilah Forbes’s superb pacing and attention to Don’s orbit of influence by the supporting and featured characters.

(Cast of Hippest Trip; Photo credit: Kevin Berne and Alessandra Mello)

As it stands, this being its pre-Broadway run, the dancing is by far the complementary star to Don’s asides and solo moments of pensive reflection. Brown’s choreography—I’m convinced—would win the Tony Award if it was on Broadway today. It has been a good long time since I’ve watched an opening number and had the thought, “I could sit in this number for hours and enjoy every beat of it.” The pure diversity in styles shown, bodies on the stage, and inclusive environment Brown assembles in her dance numbers is unlike most dance-heavy ensembles I’ve ever seen. Brown’s formation work, athletic-demanding turns/slides/lifts, and storytelling of Soul Train’s evolution from pre-disco to modern hip-hop, is a dance-driven history lesson with impressive feats of movement and homage to the decades’ styles. Collectively, the musical almost lends itself to being a narrated dance-ical, which certainly works in the first act.

(Cast of Hippest Train; Photo credit: Kevin Berne and Alessandra Mello)

Dede Ayite’s period-appropriate and fabulously flashy costume design is a feat in itself, igniting that 1970s-to-mid-2000s nostalgia, or assumed nostalgia for the younger crowd. Ayite’s costumes are both concept-driven for the decade/group of years as well of Soul Train’s existence as functional for the dance demands. Darrington dons a few intentionally pristine, solid-colored suits, and Iman’s journey as Pam is complemented by the hair and wig design by Mia Neal. Zane Mark’s dance arrangements are tops in giving Brown’s choreography time to go a few measures longer than is typical (this is a complement), allowing audiences to truly fall into the dance craze and dance evolution that Soul Train showcased. Jen Schriever’s lighting design is excellent in its ability to drive mood and focus at the turn of a dime from an emotional moment between Don and the supporting roles or featured character’s closing vignettes to an all-out party-like atmosphere.

(Cast of Hippest Trip; Photo credit: Kevin Berne and Alessandra Mello)

Hippest Trip plays at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater through October 8th. Do make every effort to catch the soul train before it rides out of town; it’s a true treat to enjoy a show performed at this caliber before its Broadway run and you won’t wanna miss it!

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