BWW Album Review: A STRANGE LOOP's Funny, Complicated Musings on Identity and Creativity
Every now and then, there's a bright new piece of theatre that finds a way to be innovative and fresh while still embracing some of the exquisite structure that's come before. That's definitely one way to describe Michael R. Jackson's A Strange Loop, a deliciously (and not confusingly) meta musical about a black gay musical theatre writer who's trying to write a musical about a black gay man who's trying to write a musical. The layers of meta-plot aren't hard to keep track of, which means that the focus remains on the sharpness of the music: a contemporary score with lyrics that track questions of identity that are both incredibly specific and incredibly relatable to a wide swath of audiences.
The opening song, "Intermission," introduces us to our protagonist, Usher (Larry Owens), who is, in this winky meta world, also an usher at a Disney show on Broadway. On the one hand, the "thoughts" running through his head - embodied by a wildly talented and vocally versatile cast - will be familiar to anyone who's struggled to write a play or musical. On the other hand, it's evident almost immediately that this is a very specific story about Usher's experience of moving through the world as a not-yet-successful musical theatre writer who's also black, gay, and not exactly a fitness model in terms of body shape.
Jackson truly has a gift for seamlessly blending the specific with the general. "Today" is an exquisite "I Want" style song that perfectly captures the hilarious, self-aware frustrations of creatives working jobs they hate, but it's also packed with references to the specificity of Usher's life and cultural surroundings. Similarly, "We Wanna Know" embraces a very specific voice and character types while also being all too recognizable for anyone whose family is overbearingly concerned with their lives.
In some cases, though, Jackson's brilliantly unique voice shines through in undeniable ways. "Inner White Girl" provides some of the funniest imagery I've heard in a musical in ages, while also being a really smart, insightful meditation on the complexities of identity, societal pressure, and stereotypes. "Second Wave" continues that thread, musing on the ways that culture tends to lump together women and gay men - in this case, specifically white women and black gay men - and the disconnect of identity that forms. Jackson's lyrics are sharp, colloquial, and, yes, occasionally crass, but in a brutally funny way, not in a R-rated-toilet-humor kind of way.
This is one of the other highlights of the album: the fact that it never stops sounding like a real person singing. Jackson has a particularly conversational style to his lyrics, even the beautifully poetic ones, which helps ground the sketches of his life in reality. "All I ever wanted was to jump off a precipice / Launch my golden parachute," Usher sings in "Boundaries," weaving images of self-doubt and the bittersweetness when dreams encounter reality. "Memory Song," near the end of the album, weaves a rich tapestry of how tiny moments create a life and an identity. The themes explored through the show - faith, family, sexuality, and individuality - all come together to interplay with each other in a way that will break your heart just a little.
Even when A Strange Loop is funny, it's often quite darkly so. The second half of the album follows Usher in the aftermath of a hookup with an "Inwood Daddy" that takes a shocking turn. His self-doubts take the form of more and more of the "Thoughts" and voices in his head, personifying his own doubts and the prejudices of his family in the very darkly peppy "Periodically" and "Precious Little Dream/AIDS Is God's Punishment." Thank heavens, then, for "A Sympathetic Ear," where we - and Usher - get a brief reprieve with a voice that's kinder and more encouraging.
A Strange Loop doesn't offer easy answers or tidy endings. The title song, which serves as the finale, manages to both offer up a lesson learned and then question whether that lesson is worth anything after all. If you're here to leave with everything wrapped in a bow, this isn't for you. But if you're here for a sometimes painfully honest, painfully funny look inside the soul of a character? You're definitely in the right place.