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Razzle takes on new dazzle in Broadway-ready ‘A Strange Loop’

Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize winner gets a vivacious tryout at Woolly Mammoth Theatre

From left, Antwayn Hopper, L Morgan Lee, Jason Veasey, Jaquel Spivey, James Jackson Jr., John-Michael Lyles and John-Andrew Morrison in “A Strange Loop.” (Teresa Castracane/Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)
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Commit this name to memory: Jaquel Spivey. Or better yet, be a witness to the 23-year-old’s electric debut as the tormented queer Black songwriter in Michael R. Jackson’s marvelously inventive, Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Strange Loop.” It’s a guarantee you’ll never forget him.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre is staging a pre-Broadway tryout for Jackson’s 2019 musical, which enjoyed a well-received run off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons before the pandemic. Save for the galvanizing Spivey, the cast is the same as the previous incarnation; much of the creative team, including director Stephen Brackett and choreographer Raja Feather Kelly, returns, too.

For “A Strange Loop’s” exhilarating reemergence, Spivey portrays Usher, an aspiring composer-lyricist who works as, yes, an usher at Broadway’s “The Lion King” but who spends most of his waking life fretting about how he can’t find a man or finish his musical. Which is also called “A Strange Loop.” “It’s a show about a Black gay man who’s writing a show about a Black gay man who’s writing a show about a Black gay man,” Usher says, in a conceit that seems to belong as much to M.C. Escher as to Usher.

“A Strange Loop” is an entirely original spin on the struggle of making a musical — the backstage in this case being the precincts of Usher’s mind, where dwell his private insecurities, obsessions and pain. To make his self-abnegation flesh, Spivey is surrounded — and serially haunted — by six sensational actors who play Usher’s “Thoughts.” “It’s your daily self-loathing!” cries one of the Thoughts. “Supervisor of your sexual ambivalence!” declares another. As the audience follows Usher down the twisty corridors of his despair, we’re sensitized to both the psychological burden of his obesity and the strength it takes to overcome romantic rejection and artistic self-doubt.

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Like the central character of “Tick, Tick… Boom!,” the Jonathan Larson stage musical directed on film by Lin-Manuel Miranda and streaming on Netflix, “A Strange Loop” focuses on a young, struggling theater composer whose talents are as vibrant as his neuroses. Both shows count on an audience that can view an artist’s creative process as a compelling meta-theatrical canvas. Even more potently than “Tick, Tick… Boom!,” though, “A Strange Loop” is brutally self-critical. It seeks to hold its hero accountable for the turbulent state of his own love life and career — even as it looks with a funny, satirical eye at the judgmental relatives and naysaying advisers who are only too happy to tell Usher what’s wrong with him.

It takes guts and mad skills to make this construct sing, and Jackson proves to be the writer for the job. His score, played by a five-member band conducted by music director Rona Siddiqui, boils and bubbles in an ecstatic cascade of musicality. In one hilarious, astonishing number, Usher confronts apparitions from the annals of Black culture and history: The Thoughts appear as Harriet Tubman, James Baldwin, even one who identifies himself as the embodiment of the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” — to taunt Usher with his inability to compose the kind of material that’s made Tyler Perry rich.

In another, Usher’s “extremely obnoxious” Thoughts hold a cruel metaphorical mirror up to him. “Yes, you’re ugly, yes, you’re fat,” they sing. “But somewhere someone’s into that.” It’s so belittling that you’re tempted to call out, “Whoa, harsh!” until you stop and think, this is a mind-bending show about a man writing a show about a man writing a show about a man … and you’re down a rabbit hole of attempting to separate the artist from his character. Does Jackson heap abuse on Usher to lasso our compassion? Is the character the kind of exaggerated self-laceration that has one’s therapist responding, “You’re being a little hard on yourself!”?

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The struggle between Usher’s id and superego does seem to be a Freudian touchstone throughout “A Strange Loop,” and often, the id wins: The show is laced with language some sensitive ears may find too much. More to the point, a sexual encounter revealing the extent of Usher’s libidinous desperation is graphic and will, in the great Woolly Mammoth tradition, shock the faint of heart.

But there is so much to raise the spirits here, particularly as “A Strange Loop” spirals to an explosive finish, beautifully staged by Brackett and Kelly, in the midst of the wild gospel play that Usher’s family has been pleading with him to write. The family members — conjured themselves with names out of a Disney musical — are played by the various acting Thoughts, all so alive with ingenuity they demand shout-outs: L Morgan Lee, James Jackson Jr., John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey and Antwayn Hopper.

Arnulfo Maldonado’s sets, particularly the double-decker construction for the play-within-a-play scene, have crisp eye-appeal, as does the work of costume and lighting designers Montana Levi Blanco and Jen Schriever. The last words go to Spivey, whose funny, emotionally raw performance gives the production a heartbreaking core, and to composer Jackson. They are the evening’s twin stars, each in his way breaking through old musical walls — and ushering in exciting new ways of loving the form.

A Strange Loop, book, music and lyrics by Michael R. Jackson. Directed by Stephen Brackett. Choreography, Raja Feather Kelly; sets, Arnulfo Maldonado; costumes, Montana Levi Blanco; lighting, Jen Schriever; sound, Drew Levy; music direction, Rona Siddiqui; orchestrations, Charlie Rosen. About 1 hour 40 minutes. $57-$109. Through Jan. 9 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. woollymammoth.net.

Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect address for Woolly Mammoth Theatre. The story has been corrected.

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