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Theatre in Review: A Strange Loop (Lyceum Theatre)

A Strange Loop was startling enough when it premiered in 2019 at Playwrights Horizons. At the Lyceum, it feels like a seismic event. When was the last time Broadway saw a musical as brazenly original and brutally candid as this? Never, probably; shows this iconoclastic and accomplished usually remain hidden away, far from the tourist trade -- if they exist at all. Michael R. Jackson, responsible for the book, music, and lyrics, doesn't mince words, slicing and dicing any number of standard pieties about the American theatre, not to mention the gay and Black communities. Warning; prisoners will not be taken.

What's especially head-spinning about A Strange Loop is that it is fashioned of such distinctly unpromising materials. The story of a young, overweight, black, queer writer of musicals penning a show about a young, overweight, black queer writer of musicals, it is about a young man and his thoughts. Aside from Jaquel Spivey, as Usher, the central character (so named because of his soul-killing day job seating patrons at The Lion King), the six members of the supporting cast play, among other things, Your Daily Self-Loathing and the Supervisor of Your Sexual Ambivalence. No wonder that Usher laments in the opening number, "Watch them write you off as lazy/not to mention navel-gazy."

Jackson has endless fun with Usher's career troubles, beginning with a Greek chorus of literary managers who can't make head or tail of his work. (One of them advises, "Listen, you need to be about slavery or police violence so the allies in your audience have something intersectional to hold on to." A stunned Usher responds, "Wow, who knew slavery, police violence, intersectionality could be so lucrative?") His agent, who calls at least once or twice a year, tries to foist an unwanted project on him, adding, in a tone usually reserved for irritable kindergarteners, "I know! 'Your integrity!'" The gig in question, a gospel play commissioned by Tyler Perry, is heartily endorsed by Usher's mother. As she coolly notes, "We wanna know/If you been chasing ya dream/'Cause after what me and yo dad went through/To send yo black bootie to NYU/it appears to be jes' running around/And without any direction."

Even more chaotic is Usher's personal life, which includes a wild ride through the dating app world, where he is instantly dismissed as too heavy, dark-skinned, and effeminate. Then there's the nightmare encounter with the "Inwood Daddy," whose role play combines pedophilic and racist fantasies. His mother's idea of parental support involves such comments as: "Tell me about your personal life. You ain't went and got AIDS, have you?"). Meanwhile, his father muses obsessively, "I'm a man. Are you attracted to me?"). Is it any wonder that Usher's head teems with all those negative thoughts?

Agreeing to write the gospel play for some fast cash (and misguidedly hoping to please his mother), Usher offers a savage parody of Tyler Perry stereotypes, including the straight-talking mama, the loose-lipped jezebel, and the prim heroine who pays her weekly church tithe and wonders when God will send her Mr. Right. (Rest assured, Spivey will make a showstopping appearance decked out as Madea, Perry's hellion matriarch.) The completed work, staged for his horrified mother, features Usher presiding over services for his late cousin Darnell, "who found out he was sick ten years ago and decided to let Gawd's punishment ravish his body rather than get himself HIV medication because even that little faggot knew that the wages of sin was death." This scene is backed up by a chorus in spangled robes singing, repeatedly and ecstatically, "AIDS is God's punishment." A Strange Loop is notable for fearlessly taking on pious theatrical doubletalk and body-shaming gay male culture, but nobody has ever gone after the hypocrisy and homophobia of Black churches like Jackson does.

And yet a show that could have become one sustained howl of self-pity is anything but thanks to Jackson's magpie wit. After all, Usher is, "big, Black, and queer as American Broadway." Especially delectable is the sequence in which he is castigated by a chorus line of canonical Black elders -- including Harriet Tubman, James Baldwin, Whitney Houston (arriving via coffin), and Solomon Northup, of Twelve Years a Slave, the latter dressed in chains but toting an Oscar -- who denounce him as a race traitor. Jackson also has a knack for blending catchy pop hooks into complex musical sequences; for all its raucous, taboo-shattering hilarity, the music in A Strange Loop often has a strangely poignant quality that hints at Usher's search for self-acceptance.

Director Stephen Brackett, a deft hand with comedy (here aided by Raja Feather Kelly's choreography) has found an ideal Usher in twenty-three-year-old Spivey, who takes the stage with old-pro assurance, nailing Usher's wicked way with a crack as well as his deep-seated vulnerability. It's a punishing role -- Usher rarely, if ever, leaves the stage -- and Spivey handles it with astonishing grace, barreling through one bruising confrontation after another and handling a huge vocal load with unflagging energy. It's one of the most notable debuts in years.

It helps that Spivey is surrounded by a sextet of triple threats that includes Antwayn Hopper as Usher's boozy, withholding Dad; John-Andrew Morrison as his weepy, ulterior mother; James Jackson, Jr. as a doctor who practices tough love ("You have such a cute face. Why on earth are you hiding it underneath all of this hideous blubber?"); L. Morgan Lee as a matinee lady with life-changing advice to impart; John-Michael Lyles as Usher's agent, Zora Neale Hurston, and a gym bunny looking for a fast hookup; and Jason Veasey as a cute, friendly subway rider in a scene that ends with a gut punch of a twist. Each of them sings, dances, and swaps out various characters with unswerving skill.

That the musical unfolds inside Usher's head gives the members of the design team plenty of leeway, which they seize upon with gusto. Arnulfo Maldonado's basic scenic concept features a series of doorways to house Usher's thoughts; it's a relatively simple approach until he rolls out a two-level set depicting the home of Usher's parents topped by a funeral parlor with a glowing red cross and "HIV' spelled out in human sized letters. Lighting designer Jen Schriever creates a procession of intensely theatrical looks, carving out the cast with elan and creating saturated rainbow-themed color washes. Costume designer Montana Levi Blanco does all sorts of inventive things with lavender-colored leisure wear -- leggings, jumpsuits, overalls, and bathrobes -- customizing them for each character. Alas, Drew Levy's sound design isn't as full or as intelligible as one would like, especially when the entire cast is singing, so some of the score's nuances are lost.

In a way, A Strange Loop provides the perfect capper to this crazy season, which happened, against the COVID odds, with an intense emphasis on race and personal identity issues. Jackson takes these agonizing concerns, magically spinning them into hilarity. Nevertheless, this is a surprisingly mature piece of work; a dark night of the soul with punchlines, it guides Usher through a multitude of traumas to the realization that, as an artist and a man, all he has is himself, quirks and contradictions included. Who knows? All those tormenting thoughts may finally have to make room for some positive-minded neighbors. --David Barbour

(9 May 2022)

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