The title of Michael R. Jackson’s new musical, A Strange Loop, refers to a term coined by the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter. According to its protagonist, Usher (Larry Owens), who speaks the line as a question, “it’s basically about how your sense of self is just a set of meaningless symbols in your brain pushing up or down through one level of abstraction to another but always winding up right back where they started?” The same could be said of this gyre of a musical, which follows Usher mostly through his imagination, a kaleidoscopic vision of life in New York City for a young, neurotic writer working on a musical titled (of course) A Strange Loop.
That description is a little prolix, however, for Usher. Early in the show, he describes himself as a “young overweight-to-obese homosexual and/or gay and/or queer, cisgender male, able-bodied university-and-graduate-school educated, musical theater writing, Disney Ushering, broke-ass middle-class far left-leaning black-identified and classified American descendant of slaves full of self-conscious femme energy.” This wordiness can be funny, as when he warns us of the opening number, “There will be performers running down the aisles and wearing pantaloons and gaudy flowing robes that I think are meant to indicate the wholesome beauty of ‘Mother Africa!'” But at times, A Strange Loop can feel too fixated on the value of each digression, each avenue that Usher’s winding stream-of-consciousness follows.
Still, this is more than made up for by the amount of raw invention onstage. Despite his maximalist impulses, Jackson reinforces the complex logic of his narrative with a simple, elegant refrain on the chimes, a musical turn backward that follows Usher’s own mental movements. Furthermore, there is a superb set piece involving a Tyler Perry-style “gospel play” Usher writes for his strict, religious parents, an evisceration of the magnate’s moral hypocrisy in the form of chants like “AIDS is God’s punishment!”. Finally, A Strange Loop is not free from the occasional devastating turn. At one point, Usher has a brief, unfulfilling sexual encounter with a white man he meets online (Antwayn Hopper). When Usher asks if he’s smoking crack, Hopper, hamming the whiteness, snaps, “If you don’t want to be here, I’ve got blacker asses than yours lined up for days in my gmail.” Usher has to admit that he does want to be there, despite been treated like a sex doll, and the jarring clash of tones leaves the audience emotionally restless.
A Strange Loop, then, has eyes nearly as big as its appetite, and is as a result a flawed but memorable work, funny and challenging, frustrating but insightful.