Deliriously and explicitly profane, Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize winning musical, A Strange Loop has—unbelievably—made it to Broadway, produced by Playwrights Horizons, Page 73 and the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
Jackson’s explicit portrait of a lost soul’s salty journey is alternately stunning and amusing, appealing and appalling, told at a breakneck pace through his book, lyrics and music. It’s a rare, if dispiriting, portrait of a gay man who isn’t a paragon, a man who isn’t conventionally handsome, successful or rich.
The confused, sex-starved main character, 25-year-old Usher—played with a combination of coyness and sardonic wit by Jaquel Spivey making his Broadway debut—is, funnily enough, an actual usher at The Lion King about which he makes many sharply funny references with homophobic Tyler Perry coming in for some savagely funny rips, too.
Usher is, in Jackson’s brilliant conceit, writing A Strange Loop right in front of us, all the images in his head coming alive via six Thoughts, characters who represent different aspects of Usher’s personality and history, from relatives to sex partners to historic figures in Black history.
These six Thoughts are all played by the wonderful original actors from the 2019 off-Broadway cast: L Morgan Lee, James Jackson, Jr., John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey and Antwayn Hopper. They are totally in sync with Jackson’s portrait of the ever-hopeful Usher, singing his plot-driven score, criticizing and bolstering at the same time.
First seen wearing a spiffy red usher costume (designed by Montana Levi Blanco whose imaginative repertoire here runs from S & M leather to colorful domestic), Usher begins to reveal his litany of issues: his weight, his boring job, his lack of affection, his desperate need for sex and parents critical of everything he is and does.
The frankness of the sexual material which includes a graphic portrayal of intercourse might be difficult to take for some, but it is all presented forthrightly and movingly. It isn’t palatable, but it is real.
Jackson’s frenzied representation of Usher’s inner turmoil, guided by Stephen Brackett’s energetic direction and Raja Feather Kelly’s perfectly integrated movements make for a complete portrait of a troubled, but plucky young man.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s surprising set begins as a row of six connected portals, one for each thought. The set opens up to reveal an apartment and a church amongst other locations that pass through Usher’s very active mind. Jen Schriever’s lighting complements both the set and Usher’s moods.
A Strange Loop is a fascinatingly original addition to the Broadway season.
A Strange Loop (through January 15, 2023)
Playwrights Horizons, Page 73 and the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-541-8457 or 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.StrangeLoopMusical.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission