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

Michael R. Jackson’s dazzlingly one-of-a-kind Pulitzer winner features the smashing debut of Jaquel Spivey

Jaquel Spivey is Usher in Michael R. Jackson's “A Strange Loop.” (Marc J. Franklin)

NEW YORK — The center of entertainment gravity on Broadway has moved to a new address. It’s now located at 149 W. 45th St., site of the Lyceum Theatre and the explosively imaginative “A Strange Loop,” which, if there is a theater god, will redefine the parameters of a big commercial hit.

Fresh from a stunning engagement at Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre and featuring some design improvements that make it even more enjoyable, Michael R. Jackson’s dazzlingly one-of-a-kind musical marked an official opening Tuesday night. Among its multiple pleasures: the star-making Broadway debut of Jaquel Spivey, playing a “Lion King” usher named Usher who is writing a musical about himself writing a musical about himself …

That’s one of the wittily loopy loops of “A Strange Loop,” which illuminates with unbridled comic energy the desires, insecurities, aspirations and demons of a young, queer Black man. The success of the enterprise is made possible by both a first-rate team headed by director Stephen Brackett and a supporting cast of singing actors — each now a veritable Broadway star in their own right.

They give expression to Usher’s interior life and are identified simply as Thoughts 1 through 6. But, over the course of “A Strange Loop’s” development — which started at off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons in 2019 and includes the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for drama — their performances have become richer and funnier. They’re not just thoughts anymore; they now each seem a full-fledged treatise. So, a round of applause, please, for L Morgan Lee, James Jackson Jr., John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey and Antwayn Hopper.

The Thoughts rattle around in Usher’s brain in hilariously histrionic ways — the self-dramatizing manifestations of a self-doubting solitary worker in the creative economy. Each appearing in a set of doorways on Arnulfo Maldonado’s strikingly spare set, they’re the gateways to all of the notions that taunt, torment and titillate Usher. Most prominent of these preoccupations is sex, and so “A Strange Loop” is rife with allusions to it, many of them specific and raw and daringly plain-spoken. Meaning that this is definitely not a family musical, even if its heart is full to bursting with the fervor of a man who craves family. The show is for an enlightened adult audience, which I dearly hope it finds.

Jackson presents Usher as an urbane, NYU-educated exile from parents and other relatives back home. They view him as heretically decadent and incomprehensibly focused on his solipsistic musical, when he could be writing a gospel play like their megasuccessful hero, the actor-director Tyler Perry. Jackson’s tornadic wrath is aimed squarely at Perry, but he’s not the only target, as Usher is a theater lover who dissents when it comes to theater’s meager efforts at widespread public access.

“Did you see ‘Hamilton’ "? Lee’s Thought 1, dressed up as an affluent patron toting a souvenir shopping bag, asks Usher. “I’m poor,” Usher replies.

Jackson’s score is a marvelous conveyance for the survey of Usher’s struggles with work and love, and with the assistance of choreographer Raja Feather Kelly, orchestrator Charlie Rosen and music supervisor Rona Siddiqui, the numbers are all excitingly realized. The pinnacle is “Tyler Perry Writes Real Life,” a production number that erupts after Usher dismisses an opportunity to ghost write one of Perry’s gospel plays. “Nothing that he writes seems real to me,” Usher sings, “just simple-minded hack buffoonery.”

His protest summons an uproarious chorus of famous complainants out of Black history and culture — among them Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey and a Thought brandishing an Oscar who identifies himself as “12 Years a Slave.” One of the funny embellishments for Broadway is the appearance via hydraulics of a beloved recording artist who pops out of a glittering coffin to add her voice to those berating Usher for his insult to Perry.

The songs in the 90-minute show take us from blistering satire to bracing self-discovery, so the evening evinces a profound emotional range; our thoughts turn not so much for sustenance to Usher’s Thoughts, though, as to Usher himself. That’s activated, under Brackett’s guidance, by Spivey’s keenly permeable portrayal. Usher affects a superior air about art and is so down on himself that he sabotages his opportunity for meaningful intimacy. Even so, his honesty and pain render him entirely lovable. And the musically gifted Spivey, with his dynamic presence and openheartedness, proves the ideal vessel for docking an audience buoyantly in Jackson’s thoughts.

The composer-lyricist already has that Pulitzer, but now he deserves the Tony. Spivey should get one, too. Heck, give “A Strange Loop” a lot of Tonys. That’s only just, for the 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; costumes, Montana Levi Blanco; lighting, Jen Schriever; sound, Drew Levy; music supervision, Rona Siddiqui; orchestrations, Charlie Rosen. About 90 minutes. At Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., New York. telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.

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