Broadway Review: A STRANGE LOOP (Lyceum Theatre)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on May 3, 2022

in Theater-New York

FINALLY IN THE LOOP

A Strange Loop, the new Broadway musical that currently towers above the rest, is a Brilliant show. With book, music and lyrics by Michael R. Jackson, this Brilliant show is also a Personal show. And a Troubling show. And a Pulitzer Prize-winning show. And a Thoughtful show. And a Silly show. And a Profound show. And a Hilarious, Confusing and Superficial show. And very Entertaining. And very Loopy.

Now playing at the Lyceum Theater is the story of a Big Black and Queer musical writer who is writing a show about a Big Black and Queer musical writer who is writing a Big Black and Queer musical that’s “as Big Black and Queer as American Broadway” itself. Or a Broadway that could be presented that way according to the story’s main character, a young man named Usher. Mr. Jackson focuses on the life and adventures of this struggling writer as he navigates New York City and the hyper-judgmental, white-affirming, gay social scene therein. All while trying to forge his way to commercial writing success, ideally in mainstream musical theater. All while dealing with ostensibly supportive parents who are anxious to see some return on the investment of love and dollars they’ve put into their son. All while dealing with a daily choir of malignant thoughts that brutally point out the inadequacies of his African-American, same-gender loving, twenty-something overweight body and identity. All while enduring a hated survival job as a theater usher at The Lion King on Broadway. All while maybe ghost-writing a Tyler Perry stage-play, the prospect of which, as Usher sings, “…makes his bile rise.”

John-Michael Lyles (Thought 3), Jason Veasey (Thought 5), James Jackson, Jr. (Thought 2),
L Morgan Lee (Thought 1), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), Antwayn Hopper (Thought 6)

With a story spine reminiscent of Sondheim’s Company, this is not so much a linear telling as it is a freely associated one. The character bumps about though various musical vignettes with his six, recurring Thoughts — each embodied by a different actor. That complete self-focus on his experience makes us who exist outside his head sometimes wonder: Does this young man glean ANY joy or pride from who he is? He’s righteously angry and deeply hurt, justifiably so. Yet Usher at 26 years of age feels more like a teenager, convinced of the rightness of his perceptions yet holding little understanding of others, which makes sense because he has no companions besides his Thoughts (his phenomenal Self-Loathing is one of many hilarious and well-crafted characters played by James Jackson Jr.). He also envies the presumed freedom and power of the “Inner White Girl” media-archetype, one who is strong, beautiful, young, and privileged. So Usher stays in this loop of frustration, disgust, short-lived hope, disappointment, anger, frustration, disgust, short-lived hope, disappointment, anger, frustration … you get the drill. And this cycle of negativity that Usher luxuriates in is both the strength and weakness of this extremely well-performed, often side-splittingly funny therapy session with music.

L Morgan Lee (Thought 1), Jason Veasey (Thought 5), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4),
Jaquel Spivey (Usher), John-Michael Lyles (Thought 3),
James Jackson, Jr. (Thought 2), Antwayn Hopper (Thought 6)

Jackson’s tremendous gifts as a composer and lyricist cannot be denied. His songs are funny, touching, soulful, complicated, beautiful, witty, moving. Some are sure to be Broadway standards one day, with the introspective “Memory Song” the first candidate. Jackson is also a savage satirist who unabashedly goes where others fear to tread — taking on mainstream Entertainment, Black culture, White culture, Gay culture — pointedly skewering one rarified idea after another. His musical takedown of formulaic gospel plays, “Writing a Gospel Play”, is satiric genius. Being keenly aware of the aspirational, Black middle-class pitfalls, we get “…so keep your knees bent in prayer and the Lord thy God will send you a light-skinned man with no education who will put you in the split-level mansion of your dreams.”  It’s a wonder he didn’t go after Jack and Jill.

Jaquel Spivey (Usher)

Where Jackson falls short in this show is as the book writer. Perhaps a more objective co-collaborator could help construct a more solid, though circular, frame to better hold his stand-alone musical numbers. The show narratively falters in the middle with one musical set piece after another, brilliant though they may be. That is until, as with Company, a conversation with a middle-aged, upscale, white woman (just one of multiple outstanding characters played by talented African-American actress L. Morgan Lee) helps set Usher on his way. The narrative then recovers some but not much. Because the idea is to loop along in an inner exploration where destination is not yet defined. Knowing perhaps that his risk-taking show will draw criticism, Jackson cleverly has characters voice that anticipated criticism so he can answer it within the show. However, that doesn’t make the criticism any less valid.

James Jackson Jr.(Thought 2), L Morgan Lee (Thought 1), Antwayn Hopper (Thought 6),
John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), Jaquel Spivey (Usher),
Jason Veasey (Thought 5), John-Michael Lyles (Thought 3)

In particular, while rightfully lampooning the rich and influential (Usher labels Beyoncé a “terrorist”) there is also an inherent condescension towards people who don’t live up to Usher’s very particular and somewhat superficial standards. Parts of the Black community get a pretty rough go of it, particularly less educated, more insular, devout Christian folks, who can indeed be conservative at times and hold very definite ideas about what is acceptable Black behavior and what isn’t. Jackson hilariously demonstrates this dynamic in the ensemble song “Tyler Perry Writes Real Life” where no less than Harriet Tubman and Whitney Houston make an appearance to berate Usher for being a “race traitor” and acting too white. Yet ever the teen perspective, writer Jackson shows little interest in understanding the legit reasons the targets of his lampooning and anger are the way they are.

James Jackson Jr. (Thought 2), Jason Veasey (Thought 5), John-Michael Lyles (Thought 3),
Jaquel Spivey (Usher), L Morgan Lee (Thought 1),
John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), Antwayn Hopper (Thought 6)

And frankly, Usher does frequently turn to white society and imagery for sustenance and comfort. In the difficult to watch “Inwood Daddy” number, Usher undergoes a scenario that can happen to some Black gay men in sexual encounters with White hookups. These men are sometimes viewed as little more than breathing sexual fantasies and expected to perform accordingly, whether consenting to that role or not. Even as he’s being sexually demeaned and brutalized by a stranger, Usher asks this older white man to rescue him from his self-loathing. So maybe Whitney and Harriet have a point? Or maybe that is the point. Is Usher less of a Black man just because he’s queer and his interests include those often associated with White culture? Who got to decide that? Why? Then again, why does Usher aspire to a value system that flat out rejects him? And he’s smart enough to know it rejects him, terming it “…white, gay savagery.”

Jason Veasey (Thought 5), James Jackson, Jr. (Thought 2), Jaquel Spivey (Usher),
L Morgan Lee (Thought 1), Antwayn Hopper (Thought 6)

The production is upheld and uplifted by the multiple talents of its impressive and energetic cast, some already mentioned. Jaquel Spivey, in his first professional role, owns the stage as the angst-ridden Usher. Mr. Spivey delivers the kind of blazing, mesmerizing, star-making performance that will one day be spoken of with the same reverential tones now used when speaking of Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl or Ethel Merman in Gypsy. John-Andrew Morrison and Jason Veasey are both excellent actors and singers who essay multiple characters, most notably Usher’s mom and dad, respectively. Both reject stereotype and heartbreakingly portray parents who truly love their son yet struggle to understand him. The muscular Antwayn Hopper and the twinkish John-Michael Lyles are also very talented and engaging performers, believably playing everything from the snappiest, femme queen to the butchest, straight man. Arnulfo Maldonado set is minimal but intriguing, utilizing little more than six doorframes. Stephen Brackett‘s direction works well within the vignettes but could use more overall focus and shaping — particularly in the lengthy and anachronistic “AIDS Is God’s Punishment” number, which plays like a view of AIDS from the 80s or 90s, not from the “here and now” where the program notes set the play.

Somewhere mid-play, Usher sings, “I’m into entertainment that’s undercover art.” Not sure if Usher achieves that goal but Michael R. Jackson gets pretty close. Best to make that decision for yourself. You will be entertained, challenged and provoked. It’s quite a ride. Or, maybe, it’s a strange loop.

photos by Marc J. Franklin, 2022

A Strange Loop
Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th Street
open run (reviewed on April 28, 2022)
for tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit Telecharge
for more info, visit A Strange Loop

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