Pulitzer Prize-winning musical ‘A Strange Loop’ makes its Broadway debut
After its multi-award-winning Off-Broadway world premiere at Playwright’s Horizons in 2019, a pandemic-delayed and critically acclaimed regional production at DC’s Woolly Mammoth in 2021, and, in between, receiving a Pulitzer Prize for the theater in 2020 (the tenth musical to be won, the first ever by a black writer, and the only one not to run on Broadway), composer, lyricist and librettist Michael R. Jackson A strange loop has finally arrived on Broadway, at the Lyceum Theatre. Not that he needs any more positive or glowing affirmation than he’s already gotten, but one of the greatest accomplishments of Jackson’s success is that he engenders both laughter and awe. empathy, and those are two of the greatest gifts theater can give an audience. Thank you.
The richness and complexity of the work’s structure is matched only by the depth and depth of its psychology and emotions, and the entertaining value of its wild and insightful humor, laden with pointed observations on the pop culture and human behavior. Presented as a meta-theatrical memoir/musical piece, Jackson’s journey of self-reference delves into the creative process, the momentous questions of race, sexuality, family and religion, and the haunting inner voices of central character Usher – an anxious tall black queer writer working as an usher on a Broadway show while writing a musical about an anxious tall black queer writer working as an usher on a Broadway show while writing a musical . . . stuck in a hilarious, self-perpetuating cycle of self-doubt, self-loathing, taunting, guilt, fear, and insecurity, until he begins to embrace what’s good for him (and it’s not writing an over-the-top homophobic gospel musical for Tyler Perry!) and accepting who he is. Go Usher!
There’s a lot of explicit language and a graphic sexual encounter in the show (presented in low-key low lighting), which isn’t meant to shock or titillate, but expose with raw honesty the character’s personal struggles with the social stigma, rejection and self-esteem (“too black, too big, too fem, too…”). Although more traditional theatergoers may find it too daring for Broadway, it’s an important part of Usher’s identity crisis and self-healing revelations that contributes significantly to the understanding of the character, his perception negative self and its development.
Stephen Brackett directs it all with great energy and an eye for non-stop laughs, interspersed with moments of heartfelt compassion that make sense of the absurdities of Usher’s overactive imagination and the realities of our society. Jackson’s music, performed by a six-piece orchestra (music director Rona Siddiqui on keyboard, Mike Pettry on keyboard and guitar, Chris Reza on reeds, Beth Callen on guitar and banjo, Ian Jesse on bass and Marques Walls on drums), with orchestrations by Charlie Rosen, offers the same expressive range of moods and styles, with sometimes vibrant, sometimes aggressive movement and dance segments choreographed to perfection by Raja Feather Kelly.
Making a stellar debut on Broadway, Jaquel Spivey, who joined the cast of the DC production, is utterly irresistible in her portrayal of Usher, a neurotic outsider dissatisfied even within his own conventional Christian family, all too often blocked by too much thinking but determined to work through his problems, pain, conflicts and blockage with a combination of biting humor, intense insight, heartbreaking sensitivity and powerful vocals (“Inner White Girl”, “Boundaries” and “Memory Song” are among the most moving). His relentless critical thoughts are played by the formidable Off-Broadway and DC original company of L Morgan Lee (Thought 1), James Jackson, Jr. (Thought 2), John-Michael Lyles (Thought 3), John-Andrew Morrison ( Thought 4), Jason Veasey (Thought 5) and Antwayn Hopper (Thought 6). Each represents a different aspect of her personality and embodies a range of characters in her memories and from black history (including Harriet Tubman and Whitney Houston), while delivering seamless harmonies, sideways movement, and nearly uninterrupted hilarity. .
Arnulfo Maldonado’s set moves from an abstract background wall of doors in which the Thoughts appear to Usher’s family home and inside the church where the parody Gospel musical is set, all heightened lighting by Jen Schriever that goes from gray and gloomy to a rainbow. of electric neon colors. Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes change with the content of Usher’s thoughts and memories, and Drew Levy provides evocative sound that suits the action and ideas.
With a Pulitzer Prize and a sensational Broadway premiere under his belt, let’s hope Jackson and his thoughts get the affirmation they deserve.
Duration: 1h45 without intermission.
A strange loop plays an open series at the Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45and Street, New York. For tickets (priced from $49 to $250), call (212) 239-6200 or visit in line. Everyone must present proof of vaccination against COVID-19 to enter the building and must wear a mask at all times inside.