A STRANGE LOOP
Playwright, composer and lyricist Michael R Jackson
Directed by Stephen Brackett
Lyceum Theatre, New York City – until 15 January 2023
If you’re in New York City and have any real interest in musical theatre as an art form, you cannot miss A Strange Loop. Winner of the 2022 Tony Award for Best Musical (beating monster hits Six and the Michael Jackson bio-musical MJ), also the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (one of a very select band of musicals to achieve this), Michael R Jackson’s “big, Black and queer ass American Broadway show”- to quote the rollicking opening number – is as boldly innovative as Showboat, Oklahoma! or West Side Story were in their day. It’s also as hip as Hamilton, as hilarious and provocative as The Book of Mormon, as soul-stirring as Rent, and as unapologetically it’s own beast as anything Stephen Sondheim created.
To quote a lyric from another of the haunting songs, A Strange Loop is “entertainment that’s undercover art”, and succeeds triumphantly as both; it interrogates racial and sexual identity, as well as what a musical even is, pushing boundaries and the envelope. There are moments that unquestionably make uncomfortable viewing, but there’s a fierceness and intellect at work here that make most other musicals seem tame in comparison. There is also a playfulness and lightness of touch that prove irresistible: something this innovative and soul-searing has no business being this much fun as well. But oh it is.
The lead character, named Usher as that’s what he does as a survival job at Disney’s The Lion King when not trying to create his own musical masterpiece, is based at least in part on creator Jackson which explains the tang of authenticity and raw emotionalism of much of the material. This is unmistakably lived life experience, as Usher struggles to reconcile his artistic integrity with the snarky demands of his agent, all the while negotiating the tricky NYC gay dating scene amid unwelcome interjections and judgement from his deeply religious mother and alcohol dependent father. It’s filtered through an unconventional structure (there is no linear storytelling but instead a succession of scenes, experiences, attitudes and even genres that collectively make up a picture of a fractured, troubled yet hopeful life) matched by a stunning score that shimmers and screams and soars.
Musically, Jackson’s achievement here somewhat recalls Jeanine Tesori’s outstanding work on Fun Home (another queer masterpiece that took home the Best Musical Tony) and Caroline (Or Change) in that snippets of gorgeous melody explode or drop in briefly without always expanding into a full number. Some of it has a melancholy beauty (the minor-keyed, threatening yet yearning pieces for Usher’s drunken, uncomprehending Dad) or poppy but ironic joy, that one imagines Sondheim would have relished. There are influences from jazz to gospel to traditional show-tunes, yet what Jackson has crafted remains elliptically unique, and very very impressive.
His text examines the conflation of gay sex and mortal sin within certain strongly Christian quarters of the Black community, and also the fetishisation and stereotyping of Black men in the gay world, some of it self-perpetuated. Being reminded that there are still some people, in this day and age, who think that AIDS is God’s punishment is never going to be easy, and A Strange Loop looks at them through a clear but ironic lens, in a robustly funny parody of a Gospel play (“because that’s what the people want”) that goes from playful to sinister in the blink of a beaded eye.
There’s sweetness here too though, notably in a scene where Usher, at work, encounters a rich older lady up from Florida (“I come here every year to see my shows…I like Wicked”), played by the luminous L Morgan Lee, a history maker this year as the first trans woman to be Tony-nominated, who warns him of the perils of not following one’s dreams and not putting oneself at the centre of one’s own life. It’s a heart-catching little scene and number that unsurprisingly brings the house down.
Usher is played with a winning combination of open-hearted charisma and cute camp by newcomer Jaquel Spivey, adorable but with a satisfyingly hard edge, a hero to root for, reckon with, and care about. It’s an epic role, vocally demanding and emotionally tough, and Spivey inhabits it completely: he’s extraordinary.
The other characters are Usher’s “thoughts” (“Surprise! this is your daily loathing”, “your numbers are in the toilet with the Black Excellence crowd and you’re getting real close to cancellation”) who also embody every other figure (Usher’s parents, his agent, a brutal married hook-up, an idealised boyfriend in a scenario that turns horribly sour…) in a story where, in terms of action, nothing happens…yet everything happens. These Thoughts are played by a sextet of beautiful, shape-shifting Black performers so in tune with Jackson and director Stephen Brackett’s vision that it’s hard to imagine anybody else playing these roles: each one of them is a wonder, equally adept at OTT comedy and nailing moments of searing truth. They are each gloriously specific and individual, but, when required, form an immaculately drilled team.
Magnetic Jason Veasey draws a startling contrast between our hero’s Dad and a random person met on public transport that appears – on paper – to be the man of Usher’s dreams. The aforementioned Lee radiates authentic star quality, as does Antwayn Hopper, breathtakingly sexy and with a voice like molasses infused with honey, who finds unexpected vulnerabilities in a unflinchingly explicit sequence that explodes numerous taboos around sexuality and race.
James Jackson Jr. and John-Michael Lyles are vivid, exciting stage presences who both get moments of utter brilliance in the course of the show. John-Andrew Morrison does something really remarkable as Usher’s God-fearing mother, in that he presents her initially as something of a comedy grotesque, all homely blessings and hand-clasping piety, then slowly but surely reveals her anguish and humanity, despite some of the unacceptable things coming out of her mouth. It’s an ingenuously even-handed portrayal.
Brackett’s staging is oil-smooth but infused with just enough jagged edges to trouble and ignite. Raja Feather Kelly’s terrific choreography and Arnulfo Maldonado’s ingenious set (which includes a jaw-dropping transformation) are exquisitely, colourfully lit by Jen Schriever. If there are times when the lyrics could be clearer, the exhilarating vocal harmonies emerge strong and enthralling in Drew Levy’s sound design.
“If you can’t please the Caucasians then you’ll never get the dough” goes one of Jackson’s particularly coruscating lyrics and one can only hope that this show finds the audience to consolidate it into the Broadway smash it deserves to be. It’s a true original and a cause for celebration. In the present theatrical climate, where jukebox musicals, movie spin-offs, star-driven revivals and shows just out to give audiences a mindless good time, are raking in the audience big bucks, A Strange Loop is unlikely to achieve the run of something like, say, Six or MJ or Hamilton, even though it fully deserves to. It’s a thing of outrageous, unconventional beauty. I can’t wait to see it again.