June 29, 2019

"A Strange Loop" Almost Completes Its Circle

A Strange Loop may be the meta-musical to end all meta-musicals. For just like the cult favorite [title of show] its loosely-knotted storyline chronicles the effort to create the show the audience is actually watching. But 15 years have gone by since [title of show] began the journey that took it from the New York Musical Festival to Broadway and the theatrical landscape has changed. The creators and four main characters in [title] were white. Michael R. Jackson who has written the book, music and lyrics for A Strange Loop is black. He’s also gay, slightly overweight, sexually insecure and very talented [click here to read more about him]. His brash, messy and often quite moving show is about all of those things.

It opens with Jackson’s stand-in, a chubby guy named Usher who works as an usher (just as Jackson once did) sounding chimes to indicate that the second act of The Lion King is about to begin and introducing the first of many in-theater jokes. This is Usher’s day job; his true profession is writing musicals. Or at least he wants to write one about his own life as a young gay man but he’s plagued by self-doubts. They are personified by six actors who give voice to those crippling thoughts. An especially persistent one identifies itself as Daily Self Loathing.

For Usher was raised by loving but deeply religious parents who aren’t happy about his queerness or his career choice. They hope he’ll outgrow his gayness, return to the church, marry a woman and write uplifting morality tales like those Tyler Perry writes, and that Usher detests.

Usher’s life in New York isn't much easier. White agents and producers urge him to write only about slavery and other forms of black pain that they say will appeal to white liberals who make up most theater audiences. Black men on dating sites reject him for being too dark-skinned, too fat and too fem; while white hook-ups want to engage in racially demeaning sex-play fantasies.

Jackson crams all of this into Loop, along with references to the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter's theories about the revolving circles of thought that create our sense of identity (and which give the show its title) the songs of Liz Phair, whose “white girl” music he and Usher prefer to that of Beyonc√©’s and direct addresses to the audience that acknowledge this may all be too much for one show.

And there are moments when Jackson’s complaints do seem a bit whiny and repetitive or when his portrayals of his family and the black church stray into uncomfortable caricature. But what saves the show is the unsentimental vulnerability that ripples through the entire production. And its dare-you-not-to-laugh humor. Plus the tuneful music is terrific, even when the lyrics, like much of the dialog, tilt toward the overly bawdy and the totally non-PC.

All of this also fuels Stephen Brackett’s clever, high-energy direction and the uniformly superb performances, led by the appealing Larry Owens as Usher. Owens never leaves the stage during the 100 minutes of the show and has to belt out most of its big numbers.

But the rest of the cast is just as hard working, playing not only the chiding thoughts in Usher’s head, but an array of other characters including some surprise cameos. They sing, they dance and in a few scenes bring some real drama.

Still, this isn’t a show for everyone (the use of the N-word may turn off some folks; the graphic depictions of sex may turn off others). And A Strange Loop is unlikely to follow [title of show] to Broadway, even though Broadway has been opening up to more nontraditional work. So I applaud Playwrights Horizons for partnering with Page 73, the longtime incubator for early-career theater writers, to bring A Strange Loop to its stage.

Talented young voices need to be encouraged.  Next up for Jackson is a collaboration with Anna K. Jacobs on a show called Teeth, which will be part of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre Festival in October. Teeth is based on a 2007 horror-comedy movie. Its subject about a high school girl who fights off male violence with her “vaginal dentata” isn’t really my jam.  But I’m upbeat enough about Jackson’s work that I may give it a try.

No comments: