By Karen Isaacs
A Strange Loop, the musical now on Broadway, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2020 and had a successful off-Broadway production. It has gotten rave reviews and multiple award nominations
But I’m in the minority. Yes, there are some very good performances, including by newcomer Jaquel Spivey who plays the lead, plus some interesting plot points, but I just wasn’t overwhelmed by it.
A Strange Loop is described as a musical about a theater usher (called Usher) who is writing a new musical about a theater usher writing a musical and so on.
While that is nominally what the show is about, in reality, it is more about Usher trying to find the confidence, romance and acceptance that he desires as a young, pudgy African-American gay man.
Usher is surrounded by six people who are called Thought 1 to 6. Each plays a variety of roles – from his family to friends, theater patrons and his dreams, fantasies and perceptions. This lends a surreal feeling to the show.
Plot isn’t a big thing for the show. It is more episodic and bounces back and forth. First of all, there is his family. A southern Christian family, neither his mother nor father are enthralled with this choice of career and are barely accepting of his sexuality. They seem fixated that he will get AIDS. His mother would like him to write a Tyler Perry feel-good plot. At one point, Usher actually accepts a job as a scriptwriter for Perry. That does lead to a funny scene that satirizes those shows.
The show also features self-deprecating humor at times; one of the thoughts is briefly the chair of the “Second Coming of Sondheim Award,” and Usher himself talks about people waiting for intermission. There isn’t one, but later he tells his thoughts that the show needs to wrap up because people want to go home, and he does too.
The book, music and lyrics are by Michael R. Jackson. The music includes a variety of styles with the lyrics mostly reflecting Usher’s thoughts – such as “Inner White Girl,” “Exile in Gaysville,” and “Inwood Daddy.”
Spivey is excellent in the role of Usher – he brings honesty to the role and perfectly captures the insecurity of the character. The character itself if complex – Usher is self-aware, humorous; insecure but confident.
The performers who play the six thoughts change back and forth. At one point, L. Morgan Lee (outstanding) plays his mother, but at another point, it is John-Andrew Morrison, also excellent.
This is definitely an R-rated show. You may find the many references to gay sex and hookups distracting or uncomfortable. But it is part of Usher’s reality – he is a young man and has been rejected by many potential partners.