A Strange Loop review: Michael R. Jackson's ambitious, inspiring debut comes to Broadway
The saying "You've never seen anything like this before" is often overused in reviews. But when it comes to A Strange Loop, the shattering, electrifying debut musical from Michael R. Jackson that opened Tuesday at New York's Lyceum Theatre, the phrase would be an understatement.
Jackson's ambitious, self-referential opus — for which he wrote the music, lyrics, and book, and won the Pulitzer in 2020 — marks a slew of firsts for Broadway audiences. If there's been a musical before that addresses the racial stereotypes, internalized homophobia, religious backlash, and HIV stigmatization of the Black queer community, all while making Real Housewives references, repeatedly using the N-word, addressing traumatizing childhood abuse, dragging Tyler Perry for his historically lowbrow entertainment, and even showing simulated racially fetishized anal sex, I certainly don't remember it.
But A Strange Loop will stand out for so much more than that. It's a story that emphasizes the importance of persevering even amid crippling self-doubt and self-hatred, that reminds us that those voices in our head can undermine our own greatness, that challenges us to confront some of the unresolved relationships in our lives to find healing, and that shows us that there is change possible in the seemingly endless cycle of hopelessness.
All in under two hours without intermission! Not too shabby, huh?
The musical follows Usher (the charismatic Jaquel Spivey), an "overweight-to-obese" Black queer musical theater composer writing a musical about a Black queer musical theater composer writing a musical about a Black queer musical theater composer (and so on). His name is both a reference to the talented singer-songwriter he has within him and the thankless, nameless job he holds while working at The Lion King — the two essentially stripping Usher of any identity he can call his own.
And while Usher's "discontentment comes in may shapes and sizes," as he sings in one of the musical's early numbers, he's mainly dissatisfied with penning work for an entertainment industry uninterested in what he has to say while navigating a world that constantly dismisses him for the size of his body, his femininity, his sexuality, and his Blackness.
Though humor and perseverance helps Usher stay above some of it, he's a "ball of Black confusion" who is constantly reminded of all his shortcomings, thanks to an ensemble of self-sabotaging inner thoughts — brought to life by a sensational collection of actors including L Morgan Lee, James Jackson Jr., John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey, and Antwayn Hopper.
"How you doin'?" Jackson quips, quoting Wendy Williams with the perfect amount of sass. "It's Your Daily Self-Loathing! And I had some time to kill so I thought I'd drop in to remind you of just how truly worthless you are."
Things only become more complicated when Usher's agent offers him the chance to ghostwrite one of Perry's new plays, something Usher initially dismisses with spot-on shade before a spectrum of his famous Black ancestors like Harriet Tubman, James Baldwin, and Marcus Mosiah Gar appear to set him straight. (It's a hilarious sequence that includes an unexpected appearance this reviewer won't soon forget.)
Usher then attempts his shot at writing a Perry-esque gospel play, but the experience only dredges up more personal pain he needs to work through, including his frayed, fraught relationship with his parents.
"If you're not scared to write the truth, then it's probably not worth writing," Lee tells Usher in one of the show's most poignant moments. "And if you're not scared of living the truth, then it's probably not worth living."
What Jackson has created with A Strange Loop is nothing short of astounding. Like the show's title — pulled from a Liz Phair song that was in turn inspired by the cognitive-science term coined by Douglas Hofstadter to describe the paradox of one's sense of self, both of which Jackson sees as reference to what W. E. B. DuBois called the "double-consciousness" of African-American selfhood created by racism — Jackson's work reveals itself in new and exciting ways at every turn, endlessly keeping the audience on their feet. His score is packed with maddening melodies and clever rhymes. It's a fresh, erratic, and inspiring first work that's both wildly specific and incredibly human.
Director Stephen Brackett (Be More Chill) effortlessly manages the musical's manic energy, complemented perfectly by Arnulfo Maldonado's layered set design. And while Spivey's performance is powerful, raw, and heartfelt throughout, it's A Strange Loop's talented ensemble that will leave you breathless. Lee, Jackson, Lyles, Morrison, Veasey, and Hopper pivot with pure perfection, balancing a handful of difficult roles with ease. A special Tony Award should be given to the ensemble for their incredible and varied work in this piece.
At the end of A Strange Loop, Usher declares that change is just an illusion. It just might be, but Broadway is already proving Jackson wrong. The mere presence of his work on the Great White Way is showing the beautiful possibilities of the form. Grade: A
Correction: This story previously referred to Michael R. Jackson as Michael E. Jackson.
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