Review: Humor and heartache abound in SpeakEasy Stage and Front Porch Arts Collective co-production of A STRANGE LOOP

The musical runs through May 25 at the Wimberly Theatre

By: May. 08, 2024
Review: Humor and heartache abound in SpeakEasy Stage and Front Porch Arts Collective co-production of A STRANGE LOOP
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Between its 2019 off-Broadway run, 2021 Washington, D.C., staging, and 2022–2023 Broadway engagement at the Lyceum Theatre, the musical “A Strange Loop” – with music, lyrics, and book by Michael R. Jackson – has won a much-deserved 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2022 Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical. It has also earned a place as one of the most talked-about, must-see new musicals in recent years.

Boston audiences now have the opportunity to revel in playwright Jackson’s blending of profundity, pathos, and sharp humor in the show currently being given an impressive New England premiere, through May 25, at the Wimberly Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, in a co-production by SpeakEasy Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective.

At the heart of the deeply moving, wickedly funny show is Usher, a young theater artist struggling with his own identity as his desires and instincts roil through him, spinning him in multiple directions. In one such direction lies his job ushering audience members to their seats, while answering an array of often inane questions, at the commercial theater juggernaut that is Broadway’s “The Lion King.”

Jackson’s cleverly funny writing makes the fun in these scenes irresistible, especially in the hands of Kai Clifton as Usher, whose facial expressions alone are hilarious. Ultimately, however, they’re just one part of Clifton’s multi-dimensional tour-de-force. Onstage for the show’s entire 100-minute single act, Clifton is both heart-rending and bracingly funny as a Black, queer writer writing a musical about a Black, queer writer writing a musical about a Black, queer writer.

The musical is fresh in both senses of that word. With Usher’s acerbic wit leading the way, it brings a new and bold perspective to American musical theater, using daring language and situations to make its most important points. Jackson is working blue here, but it’s to bring to life characters and a world that needs to be seen to be understood and appreciated.

Imaginatively directed by Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Front Porch Arts Collective’s co-producing artistic director, Clifton heads a wonderfully well-cast band of actors – six of whom, Grant Evan (Thought #1), Davron S. Monroe (Thought #2), Jonathan Melo (Thought #3), Aaron Michael Ray (Thought #4), De’Lon Grant (Thought #5), and Zion Middleton (Thought #6) – live within Usher’s often fraught mind, as a kind of Greek chorus calling him out in relation to his body image, sexual adventures or lack thereof, religious upbringing, and more.

And while Disney and “The Lion King” get a good comedic poking, Tyler Perry is given a much rougher ride. Jackson’s edgier, more frank style is contrasted with Tyler’s patented gospel plays in a clever skewering – “Tyler Perry Writes Real Life” and “Writing a Gospel Play,” both cleverly choreographed by Taavon Gamble.

Capturing the world in Usher’s mind and the real world he faces head-on every day are Jon Savage’s colorful set design paired with Beacon Jewett’s attention-getting array of costumes.

Photo caption: Kai Clifton, at center, and the cast of the New England premiere production of Michael R. Jackson’s “A Strange Loop,” being presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective at the Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through May 25. Photo by Maggie Hall Photography.


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