Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
This meta-musical by Michael R. Jackson (book, music, and lyrics) draws a tangled story out of the interior world of one Black, gay, overweight man who loves musical theater and "white girl singers" like Liz Phair and Tori Amos. Usher (Jaquel Spivey), so called because his day job is ushering for the Broadway production of The Lion King, dives deep into his psyche to attempt to write a musical about his experiences while remaining true to himself and dealing with his issues.
Usher is "helped" in telling his story by six "Thoughts" who take on the roles of everyone in his life. His doctor warns him that, by not finding a sexual partner he's spitting on the memories of the gay men who died of AIDS. His churchgoing mother wants him to write uplifting gospel plays like Tyler Perry and, incidentally, make a lot of money. His interactions with others are often problematic, even violent on occasion. And he's doing his best to assimilate all these pieces through a mental "strange loop" that creates stories from self-referential data.
Spivey is not only the one new cast member, he's also making his professional acting debut as this torturously complex characterand he does it with amazing emotional flexibility. Usher's story may be singular, but it has elements that any audience member (regardless of race, age, sex, or sexual orientation) can identify with. The six Thought performers are shapeshifters who almost float above the stage with Kelly's choreography, embodying their characters with the help of Montana Levi Blanco's minimalistic costumes, working solo and as a group on Arnulfo Maldonado's cleverly functional set. Jackson fuses numerous pop and stage influences in his score (opening with a subtle shout-out to the recently deceased Stephen Sondheim), all covered by five musicians including keyboardist and music director Rona Siddiqui.
A Strange Loop runs through January 9, 2022, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-393-3939 or visit www.woollymammoth.net.
Book, music, and lyrics by Michael R. Jackson