Review: ‘A Strange Loop’ liberates Broadway

I by no means thought I’d see something on Broadway fairly like “A Strange Loop,” Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that probes the interior actuality of a 26-year-old Black, queer artist who’s making an attempt towards the chances to rework his alienation into artwork.

For a lot of this triumphant, emotionally lacerating present, which had its official opening Tuesday on the Lyceum Theatre, I sat with my mouth agape, astonished and grateful that one thing so brutally sincere and rigorously constructed had lastly damaged by way of to a Broadway stage.

“A Strange Loop” kaleidoscopically captures the wrestle of a younger artist named Usher (Jaquel Spivey in a titanic efficiency) who, like Jackson, is a musical theater scribe with an NYU pedigree. Usher’s identify can also be his job description: When we first meet him, he’s wearing a pink uniform and getting Broadway theatergoers into their seats for Act 2 of “The Lion King.”

Like Jonathan Larson’s surrogate in “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” Usher is in a determined quest to write down an unique musical that may rescue him from poverty, obscurity and a looming sense of failure. His dad and mom are questioning the purpose of his costly schooling. He jokes that he can’t afford tickets to “Hamilton.” And his agent is proposing that he take a job as ghostwriter for one in every of Tyler Perry’s gospel reveals, a profession transfer that will go towards every thing he’s making an attempt to attain as an artist.

What’s this long-aborning present that he’s been torturing himself about? “Well,” Usher reluctantly explains, “it’s about a Black, gay man writing a musical about a Black, gay man who’s writing a musical about a Black, gay man who’s writing a musical about a Black, gay man, etc.”

This musical, which is the one we’re watching, is certainly a corridor of mirrors. Or maybe an autobiographical funhouse (of the sort that Adrienne Kennedy created in her landmark play “Funnyhouse of a Negro”) would function a greater metaphor.

Usher, as if filling out his personal Grindr profile, describes his protagonist as “a young overweight-to-obese homosexual and/or gay and/or queer, cisgender male, able-bodied university-and-graduate-school educated, musical theater writing, Disney ushering, broke-ass middle-class politically homeless normie leftist Black American descendant of slaves who thinks he’s probably a vers bottom.”

Surrounding Usher are personifications of his interior voices, six taunting denizens of his psyche that nag and mock, undermine and throw shade. Thought 2 (James Jackson Jr.) introduces himself as Usher’s Daily Self-Loathing. Thought 1 (L. Morgan Lee) represents Usher’s sexual ambivalence.

This refrain line of pernicious self-talk is rounded out by John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey and Antwayn Hopper. These performers, each of them bringing distinctive vocal and theatrical individuality, give the musical a shapeshifting fluidity.

The queerness of “A Strange Loop” isn’t merely thematic. It’s constructed into the present’s structure. The inflexible boundaries of identification are blurred because the ensemble fleshes out the tales tumbling out of Usher’s pressure-cooker thoughts.

Memory and creativeness merge. In the dreamscape of “A Strange Loop,” private historical past bleeds into cultural politics. Black historic figures, resembling Harriet Tubman and Marcus Garvey, indict Usher as a “race traitor” for appearing superior to Tyler Perry.

Family members who don’t acknowledge their very own homophobia are coopted right into a scalding burlesque of a gospel play that erupts in a rousing refrain of “AIDS is God’s punishment.” The music is jubilant however the lyrics are satiric poison.

Jackson doesn’t make it straightforward for his viewers, however why ought to he when the world hasn’t made it straightforward for him to be himself? In “A Strange Loop,” he’s in search of new kinds to precise what the outdated kinds have unnoticed. But creation entails destruction. Existing tropes don’t match his expertise, however solely by way of busting by way of them can he hope to find an inventive imaginative and prescient massive sufficient to include his reality.

Spivey’s Usher instructions the stage with the complete power of his superb distinction. His garments are raggedy, his physique is massive and his sweat is torrential. He fears he may odor as a result of a morning assembly along with his landlord prevented him from having a shower.

Oh, and the efficiency simply occurs to be one of the sensational of the Broadway season.

“A Strange Loop,” which had its premiere off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2019, is directed by Stephen Brackett with agile precision. The slipperiness of this looping, self-referential work calls for a vigorous degree of theatrical management, which the manufacturing maintains even when the story momentarily will get caught in a repetitive groove.

Raja Feather Kelly’s choreography appears to be like relaxed however doesn’t miss a mark. The scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado situates us in a theatrical realm that’s on the similar time an inside area, the zone of 1 man’s consciousness.

Although bracingly distinctive (nearly shockingly so throughout a punishing intercourse scene), the musical is a part of a wealthy custom. It’s exhausting to think about “A Strange Loop” with out Larson’s “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” Kirsten Childs’ “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin” and even Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s “Company.”

The rating is up to date however in an eclectic Broadway vogue. What units the present aside is the uncooked honesty of Jackson’s interrogation into his personal marginalization. “A Strange Loop” derives its energy from its fearless specificity.

In bearing witness to his personal survival “in a world / that chews up and spits out / Black queers on the daily,” because the opening quantity places it, Jackson liberates us from the homogeneity that deadens our theaters and leaves so many people feeling alone. For these trying to find reflections of themselves in tradition, “A Strange Loop” presents the balm of neighborhood. Broadway has by no means felt so expansively welcoming.

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