Pain with a side angst on Broadway

“Ouch!” is the gist of the mesmerizing, autobiographical new musical A Strange Loop, which premiered Tuesday night on Broadway. It’s blow after blow after blow. And then some metaphorical slaps, kicks and scratches. The main character is in so much pain that you have serious concerns for the emotional well-being of the man who wrote and inspired him.

That would be author-composer Michael R. Jackson, whose likable creation Usher (Jaquel Spivey) is a surrogate for himself at a terrible point in his life – at the age of 25. (One would hope that a show on Broadway improved things somewhat.)

theater criticism

An hour and 45 minutes without a break. At the Lyceum Theater, 149 W. 45th St.

Usher pays his Queens rent by listlessly working as a front-of-house clerk at a Disney theater, trying to write a musical about writing a musical (this one), and struggling with being black and gay – romantically and with his religious family, who keep calling and mockingly asking if he already has HIV.

Usher – in a red uniform or t-shirt – mainly speaks and sings to a chorus of his thoughts, played by six energetic chameleon actors: L. Morgan Lee, James Jackson, Jr., John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey, and Antwayn Hopper. You play a catwalk of well-defined, richly imagined characters. The printable ones are Daily Self Loathing and Supervisor of Sexual Ambivalence.

Six actors play the mind of Usher (Jaquel Spivey).
Six actors play the mind of Usher (Jaquel Spivey, foreground).
Marc J Franklin

We meet Usher’s family mocking him; the theatergoers barking at him with demands; the powerful theater people who dislike his writing; and the sexual encounters that demean him as a kink. The one warm voice is a Lion King ticket buyer encouraging Usher to do the show he wants to do. It’s the best scene of the show.

Part of his dream show is a manifesto on art. His family keeps asking Usher to write a beautiful gospel play like Tyler Perry. Usher doesn’t take her pleas too kindly, insisting, “The shit he puts on stage, film and television makes my bile rise. . . just simple-minded hacker buffoonery.”

Perry, suffice it to say, is not a producer on A Strange Loop.

Jokes aside, happy moments come about as often as Michelin stars in Kalamazoo in this not-quite-there musical. There is no respite from Usher’s misery as even his art is, well, about his misery. The show boils down to a series of disappointments leading to the conclusion that life is nothing but a series of disappointments. So, grin and bear with it.

25-year-old Usher is trying to write a musical about writing a musical in New York.
25-year-old Usher is trying to write a musical about writing a musical in New York.
Marc J Franklin

While it all plays out like a dramatic therapy session, there’s powerful, raw emotionality in “A Strange Loop,” directed by Stephen Brackett, and a great score with a few memorable tunes – albeit not much polish or ultimately much satisfaction. I missed it in 2019 at the much smaller Playwrights Horizons, but would have liked to have felt its impact in a more intimate space. For example, on Broadway the tonal balance is off and it’s difficult to hear the lyrics over the band.

Prepare your ears: the musical is absolutely filthy, too. If you had to reach for your rosary during “Spring Awakening” or “The Book of Mormon,” bring holy water and incense with you. On the language front, Jackson goes overboard.

The amount of more than vulgar sex talk on this show really goes through the roof. And not in some bold way of “walking boldly.” A term — to come up with a euphemism for it would require a supercomputer — said during a connection with a racist white man nearly made me lose my lunch.

Jaquel Spivey makes his Broadway debut as Usher.
Jaquel Spivey makes his Broadway debut as Usher.
Marc J Franklin

Making his Broadway debut, Spivey manages to sell this daring material with his charm, innocence and good humor. The audience feels almost maternal towards the guy – wanting to protect him and guide him through this ordeal, just as Usher’s own parents refuse. The character often speaks with silent, hilarious looks, and Spivey makes a meal out of it.

“A Strange Loop” isn’t the first meta-musical, and its format feels familiar – down to the last detail. The comedy “[title of show]’ about its four characters creating the musical they are performing at the same time, played at the same theater 14 years ago. And “tick, tick . . . BOOM!” by Jonathan Larson covers similar territory. Good for Jackson because he uses the genre to express issues that don’t typically get airtime on Broadway: navigating as gay men in a supposedly inclusive, liberal metropolitan enclave that actually bland and obsessed with profile pictures; and reconciling your sexuality with a black, deeply religious family.

However, there is also a word that begins with “P” that I hope will never hear on a Broadway stage again.

https://nypost.com/2022/04/26/a-strange-loop-review-pain-with-a-side-of-anguish-on-broadway/ Pain with a side angst on Broadway

Dais Johnston

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