Friday 30 December 2022

A Strange Loop

 Lyceum, New York

11th October, 2022

Big, black and queer-ass American Broadway show!

Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer and Tony-award winning musical fits a lot into its 100 minutes. Audacious in its form, style and subject matter, A Strange Loop is a mighty meta musical which balances its self-irreverence and emotional intensity superbly. Like Hamilton, it’s the sort of show you want to plonk in front of detractors of musicals to show them the possibility of the form.

This is a semi-autobiographical musical by a black, gay man about a black, gay man writing a musical, about a black, gay man writing a musical, and so on. Our leading man (at this performance played by Kyle Ramar Freeman) is an Usher at a popular Disney Broadway show, and Jackson scatters many gags about audiences, show business and generalised opinions on musical theatre (‘Have you seen Hamilton?’ generates eyerolls from Usher and his parents’ insistence that he ask Scott Rudin to produce A Strange Loop garners titters from a knowing audience). Jackson also plays with expectation, stereotype and internalised racism, homophobia and cultural guilt; Usher continually pokes fun at himself for his fondness for ‘white girl music’, while simultaneously bemoaning his family’s preferred ‘Gospel Plays’ which perpetuate racial and religious cliches. Central to this derision is millionaire entertainer, Tyler Perry. A figure perhaps less well known outside the USA, Perry is known for writing, acting and directing works based on average African-American families, often resorting to racial stereotypes – the downtrodden husband; the sassy matriarch (often played by Perry himself – think Mrs Brown’s Boys for American audiences) – and Jackson doesn’t hold back in lacerating and inverting the expectations of what modern ‘Black’ entertainment should look like. Similarly, Usher’s sexuality is constantly under scrutiny, with taboo subjects regularly intruding his thoughts (eg. his father repeatedly asks if Usher wants to have sex with him, or whether he has HIV). Jackson also inspects the ways that the gay community are not immune from prejudice and propagating issues such as the fetishization of cultural identities and body-shaming - as seen in Usher’s internalized self-loathing concerning his appearance. The show pulls no punches, and addresses uncomfortable issues with humour and pathos.

Jackson is able to package an array of conflicting emotions all in one song, one of them which shows the breadth of his genius being ‘Periodically’. It starts off as a phone call from Usher’s mother to wish him a happy birthday and to say she loves him, before the gates then open to a relentless homophobic tirade. Lyrics such as “All of these Hollywood homosexuals” are sung to an upbeat, jaunty melody, before the song then pulls back to a slower piano melody. The song is uncannily brought to life by John-Andrew Morrison as Usher’s God-fearing mother. His performance (which was nominated for a Tony) shows their love and pain alongside their prejudice. And at the end of the show, Usher writes the gospel play his mother has always wanted him to write. Thrillingly realised by Stephen Brackett’s production and Arnulfo Maldonado’s design, the stage opens up to reveal his family home in a scene reminiscent of ‘Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue’ from Fun Home, or perhaps even the contrived sitcom bonhomie of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview. This scene culminates in the gob-smacking and epic satirical ‘Precious Little Dream / AIDS is God's Punishment’. Much of the show's emotional heft comes from Usher’s fractious relationship with his parents. The line between autobiography and fiction is blurred, Jackson once again playing with the idea of multiple versions of self.

We saw A Strange Loop on the day its closure was announced. Despite its fairly short Broadway run, the show has made its mark on musical theatre history. I hope it’s not the last we see of it or Jackson’s musical writing talents.

A Strange Loop plays at the Lyceum Theatre, New York until 15th January, 2023

The company of A Strange Loop. Credit: Marc J. Franklin

No comments:

Post a Comment