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Michael R. Jackson’s “A Strange Loop” at the Lyceum Theatre, Saturday, September 3rd, 2022 Reviewed

It should have been a disaster. Despite all the Tony Awards (two, but both doozy’s: Nest Musical and Best Best Book Of A Musical) and Pulitzer (one, best drama), all the five star reviews, all the hoopla, even still “A Strange Loop” should be a disaster. And the reason is, a “big, black, and queer ass American Broadway” sounds like a lecture about white hegemony in the tracks. It feels like it should be a drag. And it isn’t.

“A Strange Loop” is the story of Usher, a big, black and queer man and literally an usher at “The Lion King” writing a musical about a big, black and queer man and literally an usher at “The Lion King” writing a musical about, etc. The performance I caughted had Edwin Bates, in his Broadway debut, subbing for the much lauded performance by Jaquel Spivey, though I have no idea how he could be better than Edwin.

Usher is not merely our POV, he is personified by five actors who appear as his thoughts (think Pixar’s epic “Inside Out” but less well defined) as well as famous black people from the past, and his religious parents, his mother obsessed with his cousin Darnell who died from AIDS (“the only thing worse than dying of AIDS would be living with it and hearing the people you loved say ‘I told you so'” and his father questioning whether Usher is attracted to him. Meanwhile, Usher is beset by self-loathing while he tries to let the white girl inside him out.

This is bread and butter self-reflection for the American Theatre Wing (among its co-producers are RuPaul, Alan Cumming, and Jennifer Hudson) which has always had a large LGBTQ contingent among its artists (as do all the arts), and gets the opportunity to reflect itself more accurately, from the fringes. All very …Tick Tick Boom. But it is better than even that sounds.

Unblinking in its artistic temperament and intensity with some scenes that are as great as any you will see, race play with a white sex encounter (Usher: “I just want to be fucked”) , day dreams coming to life, and the close to the finale a Tyler Perry Gospel musical by Usher who hates Tyler Perry.

Of course, if the music in a musical doesn’t work… and the music works. It opens with the show stopping “Intermission Song” and doesn’t look back. The songs are as good as anything you will hear on 2022 Broadway that isn’t a revival, though minimalistic -no strings here, piano, synths, guitars) and Michael R. Jackson’s book maintains complete control of its easily confused story structure, moving back and forth between thoughts, daydream, reality. It is modern Broadway pop rockisms.

Yet, as Jackson unpacks himself he leaves the dreadful towards the end. The musical is dedicated in loving memory to Darius Marcel Smith (September 13th, 1982 – February 25th, 2019) and “all those black gay boys I Knew who chose to go on back to the Lord”. It is about his cousin refusing medication and preferring death from AIDS then dealing with his family. Gay bias isn’t what it was, at least in the North East, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t at all: Usher is marginalized in New York City.

“A Strange Loop” is so good that you can feel good about yourself for even watching it and pay no penalty, but there is a penalty indeed: we are witness to the cruelty of the world.

Grade: A-

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