“A Strange Loop,” Michael R. Jackson’s “Big, Black and Queer-Ass American Broadway Show,” as the characters in the musical itself repeatedly call it, has changed since I saw it Off-Broadway three years ago. This dazzling and dizzying musical about a big, gay Black guy who is struggling to write a musical about a big, gay Black guy who is struggling….has since won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. And now, it actually IS a Broadway Show, opening tonight at the Lyceum Theater. Tonight is also significant in that Jackson may finally stop working on it.
The changes since Off-Broadway have resulted in a crisper production with a more elaborate design on an obviously bigger budget. But even on the final script sent to the press, there are a few last-minute tweaks, marked in red and blue ink.
It must be a hard habit for Jackson to break. He has been working on “A Strange Loop” so long that the actor portraying the lead character in the Broadway production was a toddler when Jackson first began writing the show. Jaquel Spivey is now 23, making an impressive Broadway debut as the character Usher, who is an usher in a Broadway theater, trying to navigate adulthood and write a musical in his spare time. Four of the six other cast members are also making impressive Broadway debuts, as are musical director Rona Siddiqui, choreographer Raja Feather Kelly, and Jackson himself, who began writing the music, the lyrics and the book for this show 21 years ago.
That so many people involved with “A Strange Loop” are newcomers to Broadway, some of whom have created great theater for years in the world beyond Broadway, is emblematic of how fresh this show is for a Broadway audience, and how welcome.
“A Strange Loop” offers the same 18 tuneful songs, illuminating and interspersed with a series of scenes of Usher’s personal struggles (with his self-esteem, with his love life, with his family, as well as with his show), and richly layered with skit-like episodes, witticisms, mini-parodies, complex erudition, and knowing allusions to Broadway theater. Other than Spivey, who joined the cast last year in the out-of-town try-out at Woolly Mammoth Theater in D.C., the six performers have been with the show since Off-Broadway. Under the steady direction of Stephen Brackett, they are if anything more extraordinary, portraying Usher’s inner Thoughts, but also every other character that Usher comes into contact with, most memorably his not-always-supportive family. Montana Levi Blanco’s endless supply of variously hilarious, easily read, and spot-on costumes add to the delight in the actors’ quick-change artistry. But these fast transformations do not take away from their performances. John-Andrew Morrison is particularly arresting as Usher’s mother – that he’s a man in a dress doesn’t for one minute take away from his credibility or lessen the intensity – but nearly every actor has a monologue or a moment that sweeps us away.
Raja Feather Kelly’s wide-ranging choreography in one scene cleverly riffs on the standard Broadway chorus line, with each ensemble member presenting quirky individual movements even as at the same time they’re synchronizing their steps. Set designer Arnulfo Maldonado keeps to the same central structure of a series of booths in a row (like chambers in his brain for his varying Thoughts, or booths in a porno shop representing his various desires ?) But in several crucial scenes, he gets to go big – especially a scene in a church, complete with neon signage — as big as a Broadway musical, which is now what “A Strange Loop” is.
Those expecting a conventional big Broadway musical, though — 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.)
But part of what makes the show’s arrival on Broadway so welcome is that it means that there is now another strange loop in “A Strange Loop”: The show offers a satisfying Broadway musical even as it skewers Broadway musicals – and everybody in them.
Including critics. The Thoughts sing:
Watch them write you off as lazy,
Not to mention Navel-gazy
lacking both in craft and rigor…
Navel-gazy? Sure. But, two decades in the making, this is a piece full of craft and rigor, and nobody is writing off Michael R. Jackson, a big gay Black guy who’s no longer struggling to write a musical…
A Strange Loop
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $49 – $179
Book, music and lyrics written by Michael R. Jackson
Directed by Stephen Brackett, choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly
set design by Arnulfo Maldonado, costumes by Montana Levi Blanco, lighting design by Jen Schriever, sound design by Drew Levy, music direction by Rona Siddiqui, orchestrations by Charlie Rosen,
Cast: Jaquel Spivey as Usher. Antwayn Hopper (Thought 6), L Morgan Lee (Thought 1), John-Michael Lyles (Thought 3), James Jackson, Jr. (Thought 2), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), and Jason Veasey (Thought 5).
Check out my interview with Michael R. Jackson after he won the Pulitzer: