NEW YORK (AP) — There is a cosmic deliciousness to the fact that “A Strange Loop” has landed on Broadway mere yards away from one of its juiciest targets.
In the new musical that opened Tuesday at the Lyceum Theatre, we meet the character Usher, an unhappy playwright slumming as an usher at “The Lion King,” which in real life is playing just across 7th Avenue at the Miskoff Theatre. If the wind was just right, Usher might be able to heave a rock and hit Rafiki.
Every once and a while — sadly, too few — we get something that pushes the musical theater form completely, taking an utterly unforgettable, idiosyncratic trip. Add Michael R. Jackson’s “A Strange Loop” to the list that includes “Fun Home” and “Angels in America,” both of which have echoes here. Like them, it is astonishing, challenging and awesome.
Jackson’s 2020 Pulitzer Prize drama winner is a theater meta-journey — a tuneful show about a Black gay man writing a show about a Black gay man. That show is also called “A Strange Loop.”
Poor Usher is haunted by a Greek chorus of voices — his thoughts as well as homophobic family members — who pummel, undercut and berate him. “It’s Your Daily Self-Loathing!” one says. “I had some time to kill so I thought I’d drop in to remind you of just how truly worthless you are.”
Jaquel Spivey, in his Broadway debut, plays Usher with such hang-dog and sweet poignancy that it may take audience members supreme self-restraint not to go up on stage and give him a hug. He’s battling a toxic stew of romantic rejection and artistic self-doubt, from shame for his secret love of white girl music to fears of being a race traitor.
Along for the ride are six sensational actors who play the chorus: Antwayn Hopper, L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, James Jackson Jr., John-Andrew Morrison and Jason Veasey. Stephen Brackett’s direction is crisp and carefully varied over 100 minutes and terrific choreography by Raja Feather Kelly combines everything from twerking to gospel swaying.
Jackson, who in real life was an usher at “The Lion King,” is also the songwriter, and he writes the 18 songs within the Broadway tradition, a lovely cocktail of rock and R&B, melded harmonies, ballads and belting. There are sly allusions to his influences, like “Exile in Gayville,” a riff on “Exile in Guyville” by Liz Phair, who incidentally wrote a song the musical has borrowed for its title.
Jackson’s sharp dialogue — “Snagging a man is like finding affordable housing in this town — there’s a long waitlist and the landlords discriminate” — is matched in his lyrics: “Why don’t you just ravage me/with your white gay Dan Savagery?”
“The Lion King” is hardly alone as targets of some mischief. Tyler Perry gets a lot of ribbing for “simple-minded, hack buffoonery,” Scott Rudin gets called out for the first time from a Broadway stage and even the critics get poked (“Watch them write you off as lazy/Not to mention navel-gazy”).
In one of the trippiest scenes, Usher is confronted by a group of ancestors angry with him — Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Whitney Houston and an actor representing the film “Twelve Years a Slave” carrying an Oscar.
It’s a musical that uses the n-wood, then apologizes for it and then continues using it, gently mocks #MeToo, harnesses internet jargon, portrays a deeply sad sex scene and is acutely profane. Jackson’s sly wit is decidedly not politically correct, taking jabs at left and right. In one scene, an inner thought offers his critique of the script: “Listen, you need to make it be about slavery or police violence so the allies in your audience have something intersectional to hold onto.”
But it is homophobia, ultimately, that is the ultimate target of “A Strange Loop,” and Usher tries to go back to the beginning — his family — before the loop can close. His father is unreachable but his mother offers some hope. Can writing her a hateful Tyler Perry-style gospel play that lays out how anti-queer ugliness can be — in which the chorus sings “AIDS is God’s punishment” — soften her heart? Will anything lead to his self-acceptance? Stay tuned.
Jackson does make one terrible mistake, though. Usher’s tormentors take turns toward the beginning questioning the play’s very purpose: “No one cares about a writer who is struggling to write/They’ll say it’s way too repetitious/And so overly ambitious.”
They’re wrong on all counts. May “A Strange Loop” run as long as “The Lion King.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits
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