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‘A Strange Loop’ is Broadway’s best new musical

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NEW YORK — The center of entertainment on Broadway has moved to a new address. It is now located at 149 W. 45th St., site of the Lyceum Theater and the explosion of imagination “A Strange Loop,” which, if there is a theater god, will redefine the parameters for a major commercial success. .

Fresh from a stunning engagement at Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theater and featuring design upgrades that make it even more enjoyable, Michael R. Jackson’s dazzling and one-of-a-kind musical marked a grand opening on Tuesday night. Among his many delights: the starring Broadway debut of Jaquel Spivey, playing a “Lion King” usher named Usher who writes a musical about himself writing a musical about himself…

It’s one of the witty loops in “A Strange Loop,” illuminating with unbridled comedic energy the desires, insecurities, aspirations, and demons of a young queer black man. The success of the venture is made possible by both a top-notch crew led by director Stephen Brackett and a cast of supporting singing actors – each now a true Broadway star in their own right.

They express Usher’s inner life and are simply identified as Thoughts 1 through 6. But as “A Strange Loop” developed the performances became richer and funnier. They are no longer just thoughts; they now each seem to be a treatise in their own right. So, a round of applause, please, for L Morgan Lee, James Jackson Jr., John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey and Antwayn Hopper.

Thoughts race through Usher’s brain in hilariously histrionic ways – the self-dramatic manifestations of a self-doubting lone worker in the creative economy. Each appearing in a set of doors on Arnulfo Maldonado’s stunningly stripped-down set, they are the gateways to all the notions that taunt, torment and titillate Usher. Foremost of these concerns is sex, and so “A Strange Loop” is full of hints about it, many of which are specific and raw and daringly simple. Which means it’s definitely not a family musical, even if its heart is overflowing with the fervor of a man who craves family. The show is aimed at an enlightened adult audience, which I very much hope they will find.

Jackson casts Usher as a courteous, NYU-educated exile from his parents and other stay-at-home relatives. They view him as heretically decadent and incomprehensibly focused on his solipsistic musical comedy, when he could write a gospel play like their blockbuster hero, actor-director Tyler Perry. Jackson’s whirlwind anger is aimed directly at Perry, but he’s not the only target, as Usher is a theatergoer who opposes the theater’s meager efforts for widespread public access.

“Have you seen ‘Hamilton'”? Lee’s Thought 1, disguised as a wealthy customer carrying a souvenir shopping bag, asks Usher. “I’m poor,” Usher replies.

Jackson’s score is wonderful transportation for the investigation of Usher’s struggles with work and love, and with the help of choreographer Raja Feather Kelly, orchestrator Charlie Rosen and music supervisor Rona Siddiqui, the numbers are all done in an exciting way. The pinnacle is “Tyler Perry Writes Real Life,” a production number that erupts after Usher rejects an opportunity to write one of Perry’s gospel pieces. “Nothing he writes feels real to me,” Usher sings, “just simple-minded buffoonery.”

His protest summons a raucous chorus of famous plaintiffs from black history and culture – including Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey and an Oscar-wielding pansy who identifies himself as “12 years a slave”. One of Broadway’s fun embellishments is the hydraulically-assisted appearance of a beloved performer stepping out of a glittering coffin to add his voice to those chastising Usher for insulting Perry.

The 90-minute show’s songs take us from searing satire to invigorating self-discovery, so the evening shows a deep emotional range; our thoughts turn not so much to feed on the Thoughts of Usher, however, as on Usher himself. This is enabled, under Brackett’s guidance, by Spivey’s highly permeable representation. Usher makes the art look superior and is so down on himself that he sabotages his opportunity for meaningful intimacy. Even so, his honesty and pain make him quite likeable. And the musically gifted Spivey, with his dynamic presence and open-mindedness, proves the perfect vessel to ground an audience brilliantly in Jackson’s thoughts.

The composer-lyricist already has that Pulitzer, but now he deserves the Tony. Spivey should have one too. Heck, give “A Strange Loop” a lot of Tonys. That’s right, for best Broadway musical of the season.

A strange loop, book, music and lyrics by Michael R. Jackson. Directed by Stephen R. Brackett. Choreography, Raja Feather Kelly; sets, Arnulfo Maldonado; suits, Montana Levi Blanco; lighting, Jen Schriever; sound, Drew Levy; musical supervision, Rona Siddiqui; orchestrations, Charlie Rosen. About 90 minutes. At the Lyceum Theater, 149 W. 45th St., New York. 212-239-6200.

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