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‘A Strange Loop’ Review: ‘Big, Black and Queer-Ass American Broadway’ Comes to Boston

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Professionalism and personality shine in Speakeasy Stage and Front Porch Arts Collective’s production of Michael R. Jackson’s “A Strange Loop.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical follows Usher (Kai Clifton), a gay Black man writing a musical about a gay Black man writing a musical. Inside Usher’s overwhelmed mind, a variety of personified Thoughts (Grant Evan, De’Lon Grant, Jonathan Melo, Zion Middleton, Davron S. Monroe, and Aaron Michael Ray) represent Usher’s interactions with the world, or at least Usher’s interpretation of his own interactions with the world.

The show progresses without a linear plot, instead shifting between scenes that meditate on Usher’s family, career, and love life. Jackson’s book blends comedy and candor in an often shocking manner, including more frank language than almost any other musical on Broadway at its time. This frankness comes in large part from the show’s origins as a monologue that took much inspiration from Jackson’s life.

The cast and creative team of Boston’s “A Strange Loop” worked to make this deeply personal story sing in new hands, as evidenced by an extremely thoughtful and energetic production.

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Every aspect of the production helped the complicated and somewhat disparate scenes flow together seamlessly. Director Maurice Emmanuel Parent was extremely deft in this regard — the various Thoughts move set pieces in and out so smoothly that they escape notice. Parent’s blocking also adds whimsy to scenes where all six Thoughts play clones of a single character that haunt Usher’s mind. Just as a scene begins to focus on one Thought, several more Thoughts appear (each actor with their own unique take on the character’s established physicality and voicing) to create a cacophony of anxiety.

Sets of identical costumes, by Becca Jewett, also assist with storytelling in such scenes. Jewett’s base costumes for the Thoughts are variations on contemporary clothing all in a single neutral color, defining their ambiguous presence to match the separate yet unified nature of one’s conflicting internal thoughts.

The choreography by Taavon Gamble is also particularly delightful. Mimicking the internal spiral of Usher himself, the Thoughts dance in cycles of individualized dance moves, the movement loops defining the individual idiosyncrasies of each Thought while still preserving the sense that the Thoughts move as a singular overwhelming force.

Gamble’s choreography also flawlessly embraces the various styles of Jackson’s many songs. For example, when Usher sings about creating a “big, black and queer-ass American Broadway show,” the cast echoes his sentiment with dance moves that evoke traditional Golden-Age theatrical dance. Then, in “Exile in Gayville,” the Thoughts humorously mimic explicit sexual acts with the performative gusto imagined by a sexually frustrated Usher.

Jon Savage’s set and Brian J. Lilenthal’s lighting similarly play with designs evocative of historical theater. Flashing light bulbs mimic the glamor of dressing room lights or advertisements for shows in New York. The set provides a variety of boxes that the Thoughts play in, creating divisions of space without representing anything too literal. Instead, the boxes keep the audience on their toes as they switch from representing a dating app profile to an office.

In a truly unexpected and wonderful moment late in the show, the entire set splits open to reveal the true scope of the theater. Not only does this momentarily surprise the audience, but it also serves to heighten the neurotic anguish of Usher’s internal conflict with his parents. Unfortunately, for a show with such humorous turns of phrases and dense lyrics, sound issues during the first few numbers on May 1 made the performance difficult to hear. However, the show made a swift recovery and the rest of the run’s audio was discernible.

Kai Clifton’s Usher ultimately anchors the show with excellent humor and expressiveness. Particularly in emotional ballads in the later parts of the performance, Clifton’s voice soars through the music while delivering teary, heartfelt emotions. Compared to Usher’s bravado and sarcastic self-deprecation in the show’s more light-hearted first half, Clifton’s performance of Usher’s confrontation with his parents comes as a heartbreaking moment of catharsis. Clifton’s expressions of desperation and exhaustion as Usher begs for his parents to understand his struggle are deeply moving.

Meanwhile, the incredibly talented actors playing the Thoughts fabulously represent characters both real and conceptual. They seamlessly jump between character voices, dramatic tones, and costumes. Their ability to distinguish between their variety of roles crucially adds to the show’s success.

At the end of the performance on May 1, Michael R. Jackson made a surprise appearance and congratulated the cast and crew on the show. Watching this production reach the original creator was a treat in and of itself. As Jackson decreed the production “exquisite,” one could not help but agree with the expert.

“A Strange Loop” runs at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts through May 25.

—Staff writer Ria S. Cuellar-Koh can be reached at ria.cuellarkoh@thecrimson.com.

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