When the homophobic, God-fearing, Tyler Perry-loving mother of Usher, the protagonist of the remarkable musical “A Strange Loop,” describes her son’s art, she uses the word “radical.” She doesn’t mean it as a compliment.
But “A Strange Loop,” Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning meta musical about a Black queer man’s self-perception in relation to his art, is radical. And I definitely mean that as a compliment.
This musical, a production of Page 73, Playwrights Horizons and Woolly Mammoth Theater Company, forgoes the commercial niceties and digestible narratives of many Broadway shows, delivering a story that’s searing and softhearted, uproarious and disquieting.
“A Strange Loop,” which opened Tuesday night, isn’t just the musical I saw in the packed Lyceum Theater a few evenings ago; it’s also the musical Usher (Jaquel Spivey), a 25-year-old usher at the Broadway production of “The Lion King,” is writing right in front of us.
He’s facing a few hurdles, namely his intrusive thoughts, embodied by the same six actors who originated the roles in the 2019 Off Broadway premiere: L Morgan Lee, James Jackson Jr., John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey and Anthony Hopper. They give voice to his anxieties of being a plus-size Black queer man, his alcoholic father’s constant denigration and his mother’s pleas to stop running “up there in the homosexsh’alities” and produce a wholesome gospel play instead.
Through scenes that move between Usher’s interactions with the outside world, like a phone conversation with his mother or a hookup, and a constant congress with his most devastating notions of himself, “A Strange Loop” pulls off an amazing feat: condensing a complex idea , full of paradoxes and abstractions, into the form of a Broadway musical.
Jackson’s script for what Usher calls a “big, black and queer-ass American Broadway” show and Stephen Brackett’s lively direction both cleverly find comedy, critique and pathos in contradictions. “A Strange Loop” shrewdly negates itself at every turn: Usher may resent the shallow pageantry of commercial theater, poking fun at such tourist bait as “The Lion King,” but he also steals the names of Disney’s favorite wildcats for his family, calling his father Mufasa and his mother Sarabi. (It’s satisfying to note that “A Strange Loop” is playing just down the street from the Minskoff Theater, which has housed the Broadway goliath since 2006.)
There’s something almost naughty about the show’s subversions. “I’m sorry, but you can’t say N-word in a musical,” says one of Usher’s thoughts, imagined as the “chair of the Second Coming of Sondheim Award.” But the 100-minute show is comfortably potty-mouthed, containing repeat utterances of that very N-word, as in the catchy yet malevolent chorus to “Tyler Perry Writes Real Life.”
The paradox at the center of it all, of course, is Usher himself, whose brazen theatricality and caustic wit lies beneath his meek exterior. Though a newcomer — this is not only his Broadway debut but also his first professional gig after graduating from college last May — Spivey gives an earnest, lived-in performance. He shrinks away, tucks his chin, rounds his back into the concave silhouette of a turtle shell and gives bashful sideways glances so tender they could melt an ice cream cone in winter.
But there’s also a thorny underside to Spivey’s Usher; he spits out phrases, pops his hip and snaps his head in a scathing display of Black stereotypes. His most searing jokes leave a satisfyingly sour aftertaste, like the bitters at the bottom of an unmixed drink. When a cute guy on the train asks him, “Did you see ‘Hamilton’?” Usher responds with an offhand sneer, “I’m poor.”
Usher’s thoughts are vibrant foils, each confidently strutting the stage in Montana Levi Blanco’s wide-ranging costume designs (coordinated ensembles in neutral colors, neon and glitter-speckled accessories, fishnets and latex fetish gear) and twerking and thrusting in Raja Feather Kelly’s uninhibited choreography .
A whirligig of worries, memories and concerns, Usher’s thoughts spin daily in his head. Jackson nails his comic beats in a piquant performance, full of withering looks and haughty snickers, while Veasey is suitably horrifying when he embodies Usher’s father, drunkenly questioning his son about his sexuality.
Hopper, who most recently appeared as the monstrous pimp in the New York City Center’s production of “The Life,” and has a bass voice with the richness of hot honey, is downright viperous in the musical’s most harrowing scene, set ironically to an upbeat country rhythm. It’s is one of the best examples of the score’s incongruous approach.
“Exile in Gayville,” in which Usher hesitantly logs into a flurry of dating apps only to be flooded with rejections, is buoyant pop-rock. And when Usher encounters a slew of disapproving Black ancestors like James Baldwin and Harriet Tubman, the song (“Tyler Perry Writes Real Life”) is a slow, steady creep. The whimsical woodwinds and skippy beat of “Second Wave” undercut its lyrics about loneliness and, well, ejaculation.
In one instance, however, the production strikes a simple note. In one scene, Lee portrays a “Wicked”-loving tourist who gives Usher a pep talk, urging him to tell his truth in a sincere, optimistic song that recalls that show’s “Defying Gravity.” Given the calculated sharpness of the rest of the musical, especially regarding the commercialism of Broadway, such a carpe diem song feels out of place. The balance is sometimes off in other respects too: On the night I attended, the cast was ever so slightly off-tempo, and some lyrics were muffled by the bombast of the orchestra.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s set design aptly captures the many entryways “A Strange Loop” opens into its protagonist’s — and playwright’s — mind. Most of the show Usher stands before a simple brick backdrop with six doorways through which his thoughts pass in and out. That is, until the stage transforms speedily into a grim spectacle of neon lights and exaggerated embellishments, reflecting everything Usher refuses to produce in his own art. The lighting (design by Jen Schriever) — which frames the stage in concentric rectangles — is a nod toward the show’s nested conceit, and the gradual fade-outs and the blitz of radiant hues complement the sections.
The tricky task I face as a critic is figuring out how to write about a work whose brilliance has already been noted. The New York Times named the show a critic’s pick in 2019, and I wrote briefly about the show’s Broadway tryout in Washington, DC, this fall. It’s already won the Pulitzer.
And yet, it seems as if there is no measure of praise that could be too much; After all, this is a show that allows a Black gay man to be vulnerable onstage without dismissing or fetishizing his trauma, desires and creative ambitions. Now that’s some radical theater.
A Strange Loop
At the Lyceum Theater, Manhattan; strangeloopmusical.com. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.