Review

“A Strange Loop” at Barbican Theatre

Mark Shenton in central London
3 July 2023

After Groundhog Day, a musical about a man trapped in a recurring loop of revisiting the same day again and again (and now playing, again, at the Old Vic), here’s another: A Strange Loop portrays a man also stuck in a recurring strange loop, endlessly berated by his inner monologues of inadequacy, doubt, and self-loathing.

 

The ensemble. 
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

 

This fearsome, fearless, and frank musical, arriving at the Barbican for a summer season from New York where it won both the Tony Award for Best New Musical in 2022 and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is a heavily autobiographical musical by Michael R. Jackson about a young aspiring composer of musicals, which follows his protracted journey to write the musical we are in fact now watching. Named simply “Usher” in the show, he earns a living by ushering at Broadway’s The Lion King – as Jackson himself once did. It is both audacious and courageous in centring the experience of a man who describes himself as fat, Black, and queer.

We’ve seen many musicals about creative folk trying to make it in the notoriously competitive world of musicals themselves, from A Chorus Line and A Class Act (an autobiographical musical about Edward Kleban’s struggle to succeed as a writer, which he most famously did as co-creator of A Chorus line) to Sondheim and Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along (returning to Broadway this September). But this musical unsparingly unsentimentalizes the poison of self-doubt and rejection that Jackson must wrestle with in both his personal and professional lives as he seeks to realize his dream.

 

Sharlene Hector as Thought 1. 
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

 

That it ends so well for him with an award-wining musical that took Broadway by storm a couple of years ago is, of course, a sweet outcome that mitigates the deep vein of pain and distress that runs through the show, as our writer is assailed by the voices in his head – and reality – telling him that his dreams are out of reach. Director Stephen Brackett stages it as a daring, dangerous, and frequently moving fantasy of scenes that play out in his head, like a pick-up on a subway train by an attractive stranger, or the abuse and degradation he subjects himself to from a date he meets online.

Not since Harvey Fierstein’s equally autobiographically inspired Torch Song Trilogy first premiered on Broadway 41 years ago has there been such a raw and revealing portrayal of modern gay New York life; it comes from lived experience.

 

Eddie Elliott and Yeukayi Ushe.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

 

Jackson’s own songs draw on a rich tapestry of styles and experience, too, from Broadway to soul and gospel. The show is full of corresponding surprises; you can never be quite sure where it will go next. But is entirely anchored by a performance from Kyle Ramar Freeman, reprising the role of Usher that he understudied on Broadway, which is both sweet and funny; his vulnerability is palpable. Around him, six other confident performers swirl as voices of this subconscious, prodding, cajoling, and frequently undermining him.

They are framed in a set by Arnulfo Maldonado that isolates them in separate door frames, but eventually springs its own spectacular surprise as the show becomes a giant gospel musical of the sort that his agent is trying to get him to write for Tyler Perry.

This year has already brought Ain’t Too Proud – a jukebox musical devoted to the songs of The Temptations – from Broadway to the West End; Usher in A Strange Loop is none too proud, either, but this defiant, exhilarating musical is one that its creator can be truly proud of. Next year Michael R. Jackson’s musical namesake Michael Jackson will also see the current Broadway extravaganza MJ transfer to the West End; but A Strange Loop is much more honest about its own protagonist’s journey to success.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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