“Hippest Trip: The Soul Train Musical” roared into San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater Wednesday night in an explosively kinetic world premiere.
Dominique Morisseau’s propulsive new jukebox musical has its sights set on Broadway, where “Ain’t Too Proud,” the Temptations musical, which she also wrote and which debuted at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, generated great acclaim for its celebration of the Motown sound.
Movement is the engine that drives “Trip,” a retro pop music delight that pays tribute to “Soul Train,” the groundbreaking TV dance party that brought Black singers and dancers into the mainstream American imagination from the ‘70s to the 2000’s. In a society often ruled by visuals, TV shows take on outsize influence over the culture. In the case of “Soul Train,” the influence was colossal, shining an unwavering spotlight on black culture through the ebb and flow of decades of social tumult. It was a radical alternative to “American Bandstand” in which people of color had the spotlight.
Playwright Morisseau, also known for “Paradise Blue” and “Skeleton Crew,” captures the sweep of time but doesn’t reveal enough nuance in Don Cornelius’ role as a visionary pioneer. She reaches for King Lear-like tragedy but falls short. The narrative doesn’t have enough grit to truly transcend the formulaic tropes of the jukebox genre.
Director Kamilah Forbes frames the musical peaks in this dance machine deftly, from Gloria Gaynor to Janet Jackson, and the magnetic Quentin Earl Darrington gilds the imposing TV impresario Cornelius with a groovy sense of gravitas. But the real stars of this show are the dance moves, muscularly choreographed by Camille A. Brown, and the music, which flows effortlessly from soul and funk to disco and hip-hop.
It’s the sound of America approaching a new millennium, a people’s symphony shot through myriad voices aching to be heard.
While the Cornelius biography feels stretched thin, some of the supporting characters, like the talent booker Pam (a mesmerizing Amber Iman, best known as the titular “Goddess” at Berkeley Rep) beg for more limelight. Certainly the women characters too often feel eclipsed and underwritten here.
If the first act drags, the second flies. While it’s on the long side, roughly three hours with some clunky exposition that needs to be cut, the musical numbers move like a freight train, channeling the unstoppable force of the beat until it bowls you over with nostalgia for bygone pleasures from the 1980s poppin’ and lockin’ vibe to the ’90s “Fight the Power” era.
There’s also a potent sense of oft-forgotten history here, underscored by the presence of original Soul Train dancers and Cornelius’ son Tony on opening night. “Soul Train” makes you think about how we are all dancing through time to the same destination.
Contact Karen D’Souza at [email protected].
‘HIPPEST TRIP — THE SOUL TRAIN MUSICAL’
Book by Dominique Morisseau, music and lyrics by various artists, presented by American Conservatory Theater
Through: Oct. 8
Where: ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco
Running time: 3 hours, one intermission
Tickets: $25-$130; 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org