Review Roundup: A STRANGE LOOP Opens On Broadway!

Michael R. Jackson's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical opens at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre!

By: Apr. 26, 2022
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A Strange Loop

The Broadway production of A Strange Loop, Michael R. Jackson's Pulitzer-Prize winning musical, opens tonight at the Lyceum Theater. Read the reviews!

A Strange Loop is directed by Stephen Brackett, choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly, and produced by Barbara Whitman, along with Page 73 Productions, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Playwrights Horizons.

The Broadway cast of A Strange Loop features Jaquel Spivey, in his Broadway debut, as Usher. He joins original cast members Antwayn Hopper (Thought 6), L Morgan Lee (Thought 1), John-Michael Lyles (Thought 3), James Jackson, Jr. (Thought 2), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), and Jason Veasey (Thought 5). Understudies include Edwin Bates, Kyle Ramar Freeman, Jon-Michael Reese, and Mars Rucker.

Maya Phillips, The New York Times: The tricky task I face as a critic is figuring out how to write about a work whose brilliance has already been noted. The New York Times named the show a critic's pick in 2019, and I wrote briefly about the show's Broadway tryout in Washington, D.C., this fall. It's already won the Pulitzer. And yet, it seems as if there is no measure of praise that could be too much; after all, this is a show that allows a Black gay man to be vulnerable onstage without dismissing or fetishizing his trauma, desires and creative ambitions. Now that's some radical theater.

Helen Shaw, Vulture: At breathtaking speed, for an hour and 45 minutes, Loop continues whirling on like this: the Big Ideas and the petty ones waltzing around in Jackson's profane, hilarious, metamusical carousel. It's less vicariously exhausting than it was Off Broadway, perhaps because the company no longer wrecks itself physically with every performance - but it's still furious, both with the world and itself. The shock of that sharp emotion strikes like a lance. Especially in the Lyceum Theater: It's a red-velvet-and-gilt balloon, and Jackson makes it go pop.

Greg Evans, Deadline: Fluidly directed by Stephen Brackett, with Raja Feather Kelly's clever choreography punctuating Jackson's delightfully brash score, A Strange Loop grabs hold of us the moment Usher concludes that funny introduction. If the show begins to lose a little steam - but just a little - towards the end, it's only because Jackson has already made his points so clearly, pointedly and winningly.

Naveen Kumar, Variety: Even truth can be subjective, but "A Strange Loop" doesn't stoop or pander to solicit understanding and empathy. Undoubtedly there are details that may elude typical (read: white, straight, affluent) Broadway theatergoers, language and references specific to Black and/or queer culture presented here without explanatory commas. While "A Strange Loop" may feel "radical" to some (in the parlance of Usher's mom), to others it will be a rare and revolutionary moment of recognition.

Adam Feldman, Time Out New York: Jackson has made minor edits to the show since its Off Broadway run, but the biggest change is in the central casting: Originated by Larry Owens, Usher is now played by Jaquel Spivey in a strong Broadway debut. Although he doesn't have Owens's prickly self-assurance or his sometimes scary rawness-his Usher seems younger, less sure, less fully formed-he has a sensitive presence and a beautiful voice. And all six original Thoughts remain the same, and provide terrific support for Spivey even as they undermine his character. All deserve mention by name: They are Antwayn Hopper, L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, James Jackson Jr., John-Andrew Morrison and Jason Veasey. "I'm into entertainment that's undercover art," sings Usher of his ambitions for A Strange Loop. Jackson's musical delivers on that promise. The COVID shutdown had a lot of us holding our breaths that Broadway would dare to offer something bold and new when it came back. This is the musical we've been waiting for.

Matt Windman, amNY: In spite of inventive touches, satirical humor, fluid production values, and songs full of both spark and sensitivity, "A Strange Loop" ultimately falls victim to the perils of its own design, becoming so messy, whiny, confrontational, sexually explicit, and theoretical that it will probably turn off many theatergoers while invigorating and thrilling plenty of others.

Chris Jones, The New York Daily News: As directed by Stephen Brackett, "A Strange Loop" presents a dilemma for critics. It has many stunning sequences and, more than any musical in years, charts a brave path determined to confront not just the assumptions of the genre but their impact on those who take up the mantle of writing them. But it will not appeal to a broad swath of the theatergoing population. It's not for kids. It likely will offend Black conservatives. And some gay theatergoers will not care for its amplification of self-loathing, nor its determined argument that racism is always in the bedroom.

Bob Verini, New York Stage Review: Yet there's a shape and balance to this remarkable work which set it above most conventional musical entertainment. Following multiple musical vignettes of Usher's sad sack Manhattan life, we are treated to a blistering satire of the oeuvre of billionaire entrepreneur Tyler Perry, for whose trafficking in stereotypes, and benign bigotry, Usher (and clearly Jackson) have no use. Cajoled by his money-hungry family to enter the Perry orbit, Usher executes a one-man distillation of a typical "chitlin' circuit" script, doing all the voices. This speech is a tour de force destined to win acting scholarships for countless young thesps of color, for decades to come.

Robert Hofler, The Wrap: This review, minus a few obvious updates, is basically what I wrote about "A Strange Loop" in 2019. Despite going on to win the Pulitzer Prize, the show has invoked some chat-room gossip that it "doesn't belong on Broadway." Yes, that's what they once said about "Caroline, or Change," "Avenue Q," "Fun Home" and "Hamilton" before they hit the big time. Not only does "Loop" belong on Broadway, it is by far the best new musical to open during this very strange theater season.

Johnny Oleksinski, The New York Post: Even if it all plays out like a dramatic therapy session, there is a powerful, raw emotionality to "A Strange Loop," directed by Stephen Brackett, and a boppin' score with a couple memorable tunes - if not much polish or, ultimately, much satisfaction. I missed it at the much smaller Playwrights Horizons in 2019, but would've liked to have felt its effects in a more intimate room. For instance, the sound balance on Broadway is off, and it's hard to hear the lyrics over the band. Prepare your ears: The musical is also absolutely filthy. If "Spring Awakening" or "The Book of Mormon" had you reaching for your rosary, best bring along some holy water and frankincense for this one. On the language front, Jackson goes overboard.

Diep Tran, Broadway News: But as I am writing this, it occurs to me that what Jackson does with "A Strange Loop" isn't just write a musical with catchy tunes and clever lyrics. He's also successfully testing the conceit of how the universal is rooted in the specific. In making the lead character a fat, Black gay man, within an industry (and larger society) that prioritizes and idolizes skinny, white bodies, Jackson is making a Black gay man an embodiment of the universal. And he's also written one of the best, and the most groundbreaking, new musicals of the Broadway season.

Jonathan Mandell, New York Theater: Navel-gazy? Sure. But, two decades in the making, this is a piece full of craft and rigor, and nobody is writing off Michael R. Jackson, a big gay Black guy who's no longer struggling to write a musical...

Mark Kennedy, Associated Press: Jaquel Spivey, in his Broadway debut, plays Usher with such hang-dog and sweet poignancy that it may take audience members supreme self-restraint not to go up on stage and give him a hug. He's battling a toxic stew of romantic rejection and artistic self-doubt, from shame for his secret love of white girl music to fears of being a race traitor. Along for the ride are six sensational actors who play the chorus: Antwayn Hopper, L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, James Jackson Jr., John-Andrew Morrison and Jason Veasey. Stephen Brackett's direction is crisp and carefully varied over 100 minutes and terrific choreography by Raja Feather Kelly combines everything from twerking to gospel swaying.

Joey Sims, Theatrely: In crafting a work so joyously and painfully honest, playwright, composer and lyricist Michael R. Jackson walks a fine line. A Strange Loop is a carefully structured piece, lean and quick-paced. Yet it is also a manic mess, a frenzied collage that stays true to its central premise of hurtling through the chaotic depths of one man's rage, trauma, and self-hatred. That is Jackson's most awe-inspiring accomplishment with A Strange Loop, which is certainly the best new musical on Broadway this season: he has created a finely honed piece of theater while always remaining true to his own distinct voice.

Juan Michael Porter III, New York Theatre Guide: "WOW!" I thought to myself as my body leapt to its feet on its own volition to applaud A Strange Loop. "This must be how people who saw the first performances of Show Boat, Oklahoma!, Company, Rent, or Hamilton felt." Though I've witnessed and studied the innovations in each of those musicals, none of them are as revolutionary as what Michael R. Jackson has accomplished with his Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, now making its Broadway debut. That is thanks to his splendid writing and craftsmanship, as well as flawless and often shocking performances given by the cast ― including a fresh-out-of-college leading man, Jaquel Spivey, in his Broadway debut.

Elysa Gardner, The New York Sun: Mr. Jackson's scorn is mitigated, fortunately, by his self-awareness, and by a gift for channeling both his frustration and his own insecurity into lyrical songs and trenchant, exhilarating comedy.

Peter Marks, The Washington Post: The songs in the 90-minute show take us from blistering satire to bracing self-discovery, so the evening evinces a profound emotional range; our thoughts turn not so much for sustenance to Usher's Thoughts, though, as to Usher himself. That's activated, under Brackett's guidance, by Spivey's keenly permeable portrayal. Usher affects a superior air about art and is so down on himself that he sabotages his opportunity for meaningful intimacy. Even so, his honesty and pain render him entirely lovable. And the musically gifted Spivey, with his dynamic presence and openheartedness, proves the ideal vessel for docking an audience buoyantly in Jackson's thoughts. The composer-lyricist already has that Pulitzer, but now he deserves the Tony. Spivey should get one, too. Heck, give "A Strange Loop" a lot of Tonys. That's only just, for the best Broadway musical of the season.

Charles McNulty, The Los Angeles Times: I never thought I'd see anything on Broadway quite like "A Strange Loop," Michael R. Jackson's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that probes the inner reality of a 26-year-old Black, queer artist who's trying against the odds to transform his alienation into art. For much of this triumphant, emotionally lacerating show, which had its official opening Tuesday at the Lyceum Theatre, I sat with my mouth agape, astonished and grateful that something so brutally honest and rigorously constructed had finally broken through to a Broadway stage.

Matthew Wexler, Queerty: Michael R. Jackson's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical A Strange Loop arrives on Broadway, backed by powerhouse producers, including RuPaul, Alan Cumming, Jennifer Hudson, Billy Porter, Ilana Glazer, and more. The names above the title may pique the interest of celebrity-hungry theatergoers, but it's the electrifying cast, led by newcomer Jaquel Spivey that dismantles everything we believed a Broadway musical "should" be.

Dan Rubins, Slant: And though one Thought suggests in answer that Usher "might be overcomplicating," A Strange Loop relies upon that level of introspective over-complication to make the case that Usher's thoughts deserve a stage to themselves. In proving that they do, and in bringing Usher's vivid and complex inner life all the way to Broadway with such gripping vibrancy, Jackson nudges the musical theater form in a startling, new direction.

David Quinn, Entertainment Weekly: The saying "You've never seen anything like this before" is often overused in reviews. But when it comes to A Strange Loop, the shattering, electrifying debut musical from Michael R. Jackson that opened Tuesday at New York's Lyceum Theatre, the phrase would be an understatement.

David Cote, Observer: A Strange Loop is profanely funny and courageously raw, but on a second viewing (I reviewed its world premiere Off Broadway in 2019), it's also claustrophobically fixated on the wounds of youth, a howl of rage at gay lookism, white gatekeepers, and toxic Christianity. All those targets deserve to be howled down to hell. But Jackson is 41 years old; his avatar is identified as 26. That's a telling gap, one that permits a rebel's outrage rather than a middle-aged artist's mellower view. The lack of self-awareness combined with merciless self-examination comes to a bathetic head when Thought #1 says, "[it's not about] Tyler or your parents or anybody else. And as scary as this world might seem, all of this ugliness ... this pain and anger ... is about you. So how about you focus on yourself?" Which is rich after 90 minutes of Usher running screaming around his hall of mirrors.

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