Stephen Brackett’s exhilarating staging of A Strange Loop (★★★★☆) at Woolly Mammoth should be a hot ticket through the holidays, and not only for the chance to take in Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical before it reaches Broadway. In fact, no other musical has been so honored in advance of a Broadway run, and the brilliant material remains in good hands with Brackett, who directed all but one of this terrific seven-person cast in its 2019 production.
That new addition to the cast is quite new indeed, as recent Point Park University grad Jaquel Spivey makes an auspicious professional theatrical debut in the lead role of Usher. “Big, Black, and queer as Broadway,” Usher happens to work as an usher at The Lion King while, in his spare time, writing his self-referential musical A Strange Loop. Jackson, who wrote the show’s book, music, and lyrics, also had a day-job as an usher at The Lion King while writing his self-referential musical.
So the character’s journey parallels the writer’s, and the writer’s reflexive voice merges beautifully with the actor’s talents to forge an appealing hero. Belting his way through the bright, yearning “Today,” or bopping through the smooth pop-rock of “Inner White Girl,” Spivey adeptly delivers Jackson’s pithy tunes, and lends endearing shape to Usher’s angst about his size, race, and sexuality.
To be sure, Usher sings about, and ponders over, his identity and body image more than most — more than the Jonathan Larson depicted in similarly-themed Tick, Tick… Boom!, for example. But that aspiring musical writer working a service job while crafting his self-referential masterpiece fit the theater world’s white, heteronormative status quo in ways that Usher is constantly reminded he does not.
Usher doesn’t feel he fits in with the gays at the club or bathhouse, either, nor with his devoutly religious family. His search for self steers into an uplifting musical trip, discovery leading to self-acceptance. He wants to embrace being big, Black, and queer, without having to commodify his existence by churning out caricatures, like a certain mogul, writer, and cross-dressing star of gospel plays that Usher disdains.
A Strange Loop goes in hard, and hilariously, on Tyler Perry-style entertainment, while expressing through the score a poignant affinity for showtunes and rocker Liz Phair. The references are alternately canny or provocative. Probably this is the first prize-winning musical to cleverly rhyme the word Truvada.
The show’s deftest turn, however, is deploying a chorus of inner voices — Thought 1 (L Morgan Lee), Thought 2 (James Jackson, Jr.), Thought 3 (John-Michael Lyles), Thought 4 (John-Andrew Morrison), Thought 5 (Jason Veasey), and Thought 6 (Antwayn Hopper) — to embody Usher’s mind and emotions. They harangue him with their judgment, pester him with their opinions, usually to glorious comic effect. Usher’s not always laughing, but he can’t escape them; they are him, his fears and doubts. His Daily Self-Loathing likes to saunter through just to remind him to feel horrible about himself.
The entire crew is consistently amusing, and sharp in their approach to the songs and Raja Feather Kelly’s witty choreography. Tantalizingly presented by scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado in six discrete boxes, each framed in light, the Thoughts, in both concept and execution, add the razzle-dazzle that elevates musical memoir to non-stop delight. They might be pests to our hero, but they support him and soothe him, too, in a tough-love fashion that purely reflects how souls like Usher are so much more harshly critical of themselves than even their harshest critics.
A Strange Loop has been extended through Jan. 9, 2022 at Woolly Mammoth, 641 D St. NW. Tickets are $42 to $100, with discounted prices for patrons aged 30 and under. Pay-What-You-Will tickets are also available to certain performances by selecting the PWYW seats and adjusting the ticket price. Visit www.woollymammoth.net.
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