Review Roundup: A STRANGE LOOP at Playwrights Horizons
Playwrights Horizons, in association with Page 73, present the world premiere production of A Strange Loop, with book, music, and lyrics by 2017 Jonathan Larson Award and 2017 Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award-winner Michael R. Jackson, directed by Stephen Brackett (Be More Chill, Buyer and Cellar), and choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly (Playwrights: If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka; Ugly (Black Queer Zoo), Fairview). A Strange Loop explores the thoughts of Usher, a black, queer writer working a job he hates while writing his original musical: a piece about a black, queer writer, working a job he hates while writing his original musical. Michael R. Jackson's blistering, momentous new musical (and his professional debut) follows a young artist at war with a host of demons-not least of which are the punishing thoughts in his own head-in an attempt to capture and understand his own strange loop.
Performances take place on the Mainstage at Playwrights Horizons through July 7.
Let's see what the critics had to say...
Ben Brantley, New York Times: That Mr. Jackson - a very deft composer and lyricist, thank heavens - is working in the medium of musical comedy gives him another layer of self-consciousness to play with. The theatrical and musical references here are sly and manifold, memorably including "The Color Purple" and, implicitly, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's "Company." That 1970 show could be said to be the genesis of the contemporary musical of self-consciousness. Mr. Jackson's reinvention of this solipsistic form ultimately stalls against the dead-end wall that is built into its structure. At an intermission-free hour and 45 minutes, the show feels overstretched.
Michael Dale, BroadwayWorld: Musicals about people who write musicals are nothing new, but 21st Century American theatre's growing inclusiveness is, and the freshness that A Strange Loop offers comes in its protagonist's duel-struggle of not just being an underrepresented voice but being an underrepresented voice within his major subset of underrepresentation. Finding yourself is the easy part. Finding your self that others want to discover is where it gets tricky.
Frank Rizzo, Variety: The abundantly talented Jackson takes the otherwise tired trope of the young, poor and sensitive artist trying to discover his true self and make it in New York, then adds layer upon layer of personal angst from a fresh and startling perspective. Jackson's hero is Usher (Larry Owens, sensational), an overweight, overwhelmed "ball of black confusion" trying to navigate without a compass the hierarchical white, black and gay worlds; his family's religion, which condemns him for his sexuality; and an entertainment industry that isn't interested in what he has to say. Oh yes, he's also having an existential crisis as he deals with questions of reality, illusions, perceptions and identity. His biggest fear is that he's stuck in an endless cycle of hopelessness where change is not possible.
Helen Shaw, TimeOut NY: By the end of the radiant, furious, exhausting metamusical A Strange Loop, the show has worn itself completely out. The performers totter as they take their bows; there's no leftover curtain-call razzmatazz. Its blazing star, Larry Owens, is barely offstage the entire time-when he is, it's for a quick change-and you can hear the weariness in his voice as he gives his last ounce of energy to his final song. Michael R. Jackson's roller-coaster "Big Black and Queer-Ass American Broadway" creation asks impossible things of its writer (a shattering level of self-examination and rude candor), its lead actor (Owens flays himself alive) and, not least, from its audience. It doesn't end, exactly, so much as it pushes to its outer limit of endurance. Even the music dwindles into a repeated phrase of four notes: Jackson, a lyrical and musical talent with deep wells of invention, has dropped the bucket down as many times as it will go.
David Cote, Observer: Michael R. Jackson's audacious debut at Playwrights Horizons, A Strange Loop,doesn't know what sort of musical it ought to be. Don't read that as criticism; identity crisis is the engine that drives this dense, whirling gyre of code-switching satire and metatheatrical self-discovery to dazzling effect. Our plus-size, lovelorn protagonist, Usher (Larry Owens), initially sings that Loop will be a "big, black and queer-ass American Broadway show!" Later, our author is goaded by inner voices to write "a nice, clean Tyler Perry-like gospel play for your parents." At the Broadway theater where Usher is, well, ushering, he glumly describes his work-in-progress to a friendly stranger, "[I]t's about a black, queer man writing a musical about a black, queer man who's writing a musical about a black queer man..." and so forth. This show can't decide whether to lead a revolution, sell out, or curl up in a ball hurling insults at a mirror. That's the subversive, polymorphous genius of it.
Sara Holdren, Vulture: If A Strange Loop sometimes feels like an early play - like a writer trying to muscle through the 20s-dominating obsession with self so that he can break out and into the rest of the world and the rest of his work and life - it's also rich with clever comedy and eviscerating honesty. It's specific and sweeping, harsh and generous, and it converts the shaming, narrow but all-encompassing religion, the bad faith of Usher's childhood into the good faith of art. It defines and adheres to its own credo, as expressed by Lee's optimistic Florida retiree: "Live your life and tell your story in exactly the same way: truthfully and without fear."
Robert Hofler, The Wrap: My favorite stage direction this year can be found in the script for Michael R. Jackson's breathtaking new musical, "A Strange Loop," which opened Monday at Off Broadway's Playwrights Horizons. In the parentheses of one particular stage direction, it reads "mockingly sings a la 'The Color Purple.'" "A Strange Loop" is genuinely breathtaking because it forces you to gasp before you break out laughing. It's also a brilliant antidote to musicals like "The Color Purple" and the recent "The Secret Life of Bees," which lets us know God created black people to take care of the white Miss Annes of this world. "Loop" is that rare musical that doesn't have its black characters caterwauling (see stage direction above) unless as a form of parody. (Alex Hawthorn's subtle sound design actually allows us to hear the performers' real singing voices.)
Elysa Gardner, New York Stage Review: Loop turns out to be much more than the sum of Jackson's Thoughts, relaying Usher's journey with a fearless heart and wit that is by turns (or at once) scathing and exuberant, and laced, mercifully, with self-deprecation. Much of the show is sung, with whipsmart dialogue rushing into lyrics dense with au courant terms and references and wordplay, much of it concerning race, gender and sexual identity, some of it too raw to be reproduced here.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus