It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won the Pulitzer Prize. But Michael R Jackson’s ‘A Strange Loop’ still feels like a spectacularly bold piece of programming for the Barbican, which has leant into long runs of surefire hits – namely classic musical ‘Anything Goes’ and Studio Ghibli adaptation ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ – to fill its vast theatre post-pandemic.
‘A Strange Loop’ is different. It is an extremely Black, extremely queer, extremely horny, extremely New York show that is, to boot, extremely weird: a meta-musical about a theatre usher called Usher’s attempt to write a meta-musical about a theatre usher called Usher. It doesn’t feature any big names and isn’t an adaptation of famous source material. So yes, it comes with a lot of hype. But it’s a challenging, uncompromising show.
A plus-sized, feminine Black man in his mid-twenties with no love life to speak of, Kyle Ramar Freeman’s Usher is tormented by his six Thoughts (Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea, Danny Bailey, Eddie Elliot, Sharlene Hector, Tendai Humphrey Sitima and Yeukayi Ushe). They sneer at him for his failure as a Black man, his pathetic sex life, and his shitty job working as an usher on ‘The Lion King’.
It’s irreverent and funny, but also very dark, as we follow Usher through an impressionistic New York City that’s like a personal hell. In a morbidly hilarious scene, his doctor chastises him for his lack of love life, suggesting that if he won’t go out and get laid then the AIDS generation died for nothing. He gets hit on by a hot Black guy on the subway… only for it be revealed that he’s actually a sneery white guy who isn’t even interested. We meet Usher’s parents who crudely disapprove of his sexuality but also suggest he hook up with a gay producer to further his ambitions.
What stops Stephen Brackett’s transferring production spinning out of control are Jackson’s songs. They not have lavish orchestral arrangements but are slick, tuneful and accessible in marked contrast to the oft-dissonant, freeform story. Soft-spoken and feminine, Usher frequently sings about his ‘inner white girl’, and the songs feel somewhat in line with that idea, moving from slick show tunes to indie balladry to nagging new wave.
It is, in essence, a show about Usher having a total crisis of self, and as it progresses it becomes unmoored from any vague sense of naturalism, as the surreal but recognisable New York gives way to a wild, concluding fantasia which I won’t spoil, but kudos to designer Arnulfo Maldonado for pulling something pretty extraordinary out of bag.
Having understudied the role on Broadway, Freeman is tremendous as Usher - the emotional gamut he has to run through over the course of the relatively brief show is staggering, his comic timing and delivery are immaculate, and it’s an incredibly physical role that clearly requires immense stamina. It’s a proper tour de force. And the six other actors are multitasking marvels.
It is VERY American. From its insider jokes about Broadway to the relative specificity of Usher’s romantic world to the ironic fixation on the films of Tyler Perry, I wouldn’t say I ever struggled to understand it, but it would seem strange to me if a New York audience didn’t get more out of it. For all its caustic, arty weirdness, there’s some stuff about self-affirmation and loving yourself in there that’s as American as breakfast at Wendy’s, and just as hard to digest.
Still, let’s not be ragging on America here. An enormous number of musicals have opened in the West End in the last couple of months and they’re pretty much all revivals, repeats or adaptations of blockbuster films. Some of them are pretty good, but none of them have a tenth of the audacity and imagination of ‘A Strange Loop’. Twelve weeks at the Barbican is bold, but it’s going to make for an interesting summer.