"A Strange Loop" show #855
In easily the most vulnerable piece of musical theatre writing I’ve witnessed grace a Broadway stage, Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer and Tony-winning musical, A Strange Loop, was a highlight of my show-seeing career. It’s a think piece which demands your attention, laughs, and feelings of conviction because no one is safe from being called out in Jackson’s text. Demonstrating Jackson’s journey from Broadway usher to Broadway musical writer is the leading role of Usher, accomplishing an empathetic journey for the audience while finding moments of stirring emotion and wildly entertaining music. The evening I saw the show brought understudy Kyle Ramar Freeman to the role of Usher and, matching Jackson’s profound and unguarded writing, delivered a compelling performance.
A supporting cast of six actors playing his Thoughts gave highlighted moments of Usher’s journey to accomplishing his dream of getting a musical produced on the professional stage. L. Morgan Lee, as Thought 1, delivered a show-stopping solo in “A Sympathetic Ear,” playing a fan of The Lion King who gives Usher some advice as to why she still attends the Broadway theatre and encouragement for Usher to keep writing what’s true. It’s a park-and-bark moment where Lee stood her ground and let her vocal and acting prowess take over. James Jackson, Jr., as Thought 2, had a healthy bulk as Usher’s mom (several Thoughts depict Usher’s mom at various times in the musical) with a cadence, timbre, and physicality that allowed Usher’s mom to be a fully-realized near-foil to his journey. The crux of Usher’s mom’s motivation for supporting her son, other than her deep-seated love for him, is for him to use his talent to write a gospel play like Tyler Perry. Jackson, Jr. nailed the comedy in abundance, in addition to his additional track requirements. John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, and understudy Jon-Michael Reese as Thoughts 3, 4, and 6, respectively, provided generous contributions of soaring vocal harmonies, and acting turns which gave Freeman plenty to work opposite, whether comedic or dramatic.
Rounding out the cast as a shining Thought was Jason Veasey as Thought 5. Part of Jackson’s genius script and score is that at many times it’s played at a breakneck speed through exposition and internal monologue expressed outwardly, which is supported in lockstep with Stephen Brackett’s fast-paced direction and Raja Feather Kelly’s fluid, naturalistic choreography. With the majority of scenes at or exceeding the speed limit, the moments where the scenes take a slower, measured approach are well-earned and, in fact, needed. Veasey’s scenes as Usher’s dad, which go for a few dark turns, are delivered with expert patience for each word to not only hit Freeman for maximum impact, but for the audience to comprehend how deeply Usher’s father’s reactions, comments, and inquiries affected Usher in his journey to writing a musical. Veasey’s baritone was a shining sound among the already-solid Thought ensemble.
The technical team executed their assignment with effective directness without overcomplicating their conceptualization of the loop of the text. Montana Levi Blanco’s costume designs were universally defining and practical in allowing the Thoughts to change characters quickly without confusion. Jen Schriever’s lighting design was moody, showy, and outstanding in the aforementioned dramatic, tension-filled pauses where the audience could sit in the special and absorb the text.
Though it has closed on Broadway, this is a text and score that are widely available for you to purchase. I implore you to give it a read and listen if the chance of seeing it has escaped you. The journey for an artist is a widely applicable one, but Jackson makes this personal, unique experience one that you’ll want to fall into and experience. We are better for having Jackson’s material play the New York theatre scene, and it’s this fan’s hope that work like Jackson’s continues to tread the boards of Broadway.