“A Strange Loop” is a musical about a big, gay black guy who is struggling to write a musical about a big, gay black guy who is struggling….. Michael R. Jackson, the musical’s talented book writer, composer, lyricist and vocal arranger, describes himself as a big, gay black guy; he’s been struggling to write “A Strange Loop” since grad school.
Whatever your first thoughts are about this dizzying set-up, they’re likely to be expressed in the “A Strange Loop” itself, which features six performers portraying the inner Thoughts of the big, gay, black musical writer, who is named Usher and works as an usher at “The Lion King.”
“No one cares about a writer who is struggling to write,” sings Usher’s Thought #6 (Antwayne Hopper), followed by:
Thought # 4: They’ll say it’s way too repetitious
Thought #3: And so overly ambitious
Thought #5: Which of course makes them suspicious
Thoughts #3-6: That you think you’re f…ing white
Later, the Thoughts sing about theater critics:
Not to mention Navel-gazy
lacking both in craft and rigor…
Lazy and lacking in craft? No. Repetitious, and navel-gazy? Well, yes. Above all, “A Strange Loop,” which is playing at Playwrights Horizons through July 7, is certainly ambitious. Fifteen years in the making, it is rich with 18 tuneful songs, skit-like episodes, witticisms, mini-parodies, complex layers of erudition, and knowing allusions (including musical theater references to everything from The Color Purple to Sondheim’s Company to of course The Lion King.) It is presented in a clever, entertaining production directed by Stephen Brackett (“Be More Chill”) with lively choreography by Raja Feather Kelly (who has gotten a lot of work lately, as well as a lot of recent attention, including from me.) The seven-member cast is extraordinary, those Thoughts turning on a dime into every other character that comes into contact with Usher, who is portrayed by newcomer Larry Owens. Owens is a powerhouse, a revelation, who sings the hell out of the songs, but even gets raucous applause for several of the monologues.
But yes, “A Strange Loop” is also repetitious, as Usher struggles throughout the 100 minutes of the show not just with his musical, but with his identity, his self-esteem, his (nearly non-existent, largely imagined) love life and (raunchy, unsatisfying) sex life. He also struggles with his folks, who are less than supportive of either his love life or his career. His mother (John Andrew-Morrison) wants him to write a “gospel play” like Tyler Perry. His father (Jason Veasy) confronts him:
Father: Son, what do you actually want from me?
Usher: I want you to like my writing, my music, and this show. I want you to care about my complexity.
Father: Well, I don’t like your writing, your music, or this show. And I don’t give a rat’s ass about your complexity…
Some audience members might start to have similar feelings (about the complexity, not about the music.) Those expecting a straightforward story with a sense of forward-motion or a tidy conclusion should be forewarned by the title. (In an example of the musical’s complexity and erudition, the title is taken both from a song by Liz Phair, whom Usher credits for helping him develop his “inner white girl,” and from cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstader’s label for his theory about the concept of the self.) There was a sympathetic laugh from the audience when John Andrew-Morrison as Usher’s mother said, referring to the audience: “These people are not gonna wait for you forever. They wanna know when they can go home.”
Still, taken moment by moment, the satisfactions in “A Strange Loop” are plentiful, enough to fill way more than just this one trailer:
A Strange Loop
Playwrights Horizons in association with Page 73
Directed by Stephen Brackett. Choreography, Raja Feather Kelly; sets, Arnulfo Maldonado; costumes, Montana Levi Blanco; lighting, Jen Schriever; sound, Alex Hawthorn; orchestrations, Charlie Rosen; music director, Rona Siddiqui; production stage manager, Erin Gioia Albrecht.
Cast: Larry Owens, Antwayn Hopper, L Morgan Lee, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey, James Jackson, Jr., John-Michael Lyles
Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission
A Strange Loop is scheduled to run through July 7, 2019