NEW YORK -- You won’t find a more creative new show than “A Strange Loop.” Bubbling with ideas, humor and jaw-dropping candor, it’s a musical that challenges most conventions and dismisses others.
It’s blunt, but also very telling.
Determined to write something about the life he knows, a theater usher named Usher (Jaquel Spivey) sets out to write a musical about a Black, queer, fat man writing a musical about a Black, queer, fat man he calls “A Strange Loop.”
He doesn’t want to tell stories that fit a certain narrative (read: marketable); he also doesn’t want to follow in the path of Tyler Perry who, his mother says, writes gospel plays that she can embrace.
Usher shares his take on shows that aren’t “A Strange Loop” and isn’t afraid to take down Perry in the process.
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Written by newcomer Michael R. Jackson (who isn’t related to the more famous Michael Jackson), “Strange Loop” bites countless hands, including a chorus line of Black icons. No one thinks he’s headed down an acceptable path, still Usher proceeds.
Six “thoughts” (think of them as a Greek chorus acting as his conscience) swirl in and out, offering hot takes that scorch.
Those six also play others in his life, including that worried, disapproving mom (John-Andrew Morrison, in one of many bitingly real guises) and that homophobic dad (Jason Veasey). Jackson gives them (and L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, James Jackson Jr. and Antwayn Hopper) fascinating songs that entertain but don’t necessarily fit a “Wells Fargo Wagon” format.
Think of most theater tropes and they’re questioned (and destroyed) here. Usher, however, is such a huggable protagonist you want his loopy musical to succeed, if only to boost his self-worth. “A Strange Loop” does address issues no other shows have and speaks volumes about the voices that have been muted in the process.
It isn’t a Black musical that readily sells tickets. It isn’t a gay musical that tells great truths. It’s an introduction to issues that should be discussed but, for some reason, haven’t.
While you might recoil at some of the themes Usher explores, you’ll understand how hamstrung he has felt. When director Stephen Brackett gets to that big gospel musical that builds in Usher’s head, you’ll understand what this means on a greater level.
Brackett’s cast moves so effortlessly in and out of characters (it’s a staging miracle), it’s impossible to remember who played what. Just know each take is indelible and designed to build Usher’s whole.
Spivey is a joy throughout and just as nimble as his co-stars. Morrison and Lee are also nominated for Tonys, but this is a cast that justifies the call for an “ensemble” award. They work together like fingers on a hand, generating plenty of reason for repeat visits and necessary applause.
“A Strange Loop” isn’t your mother’s musical. Nor does it want to be. For that, we can be eternally grateful.