Theater Review: “A Strange Loop” is an Affecting Look at Race, Sexuality, and Body Image

Kevin Taft reviews A Strange Loop, a queer musical featuring strong performances and a well-meaning message, playing at the Ahmanson Theater, Los Angeles.
User Rating: 7

The theory of a “strange loop” is whenever movement is made upwards or downwards through some sort of hierarchical system, one finds itself back where it started.

So is the journey of Usher (Malachi McCaskill) in the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical A Strange Loop.

The character of Usher is an actual usher at the “Lion King” musical in NYC, where he guides audience members and tourists through the mundane tasks of attending a Broadway performance. Secretly, though, Usher wants to write his own musical about his struggles trying to make it in the business, especially as a big, black, gay man.

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Usher’s story is told through the voices of his mostly negative innermost thoughts, all portrayed by a stellar ensemble cast quite literally as Thoughts 1-6. These voices tend to make him second-guess his talent and his place in the world as a “fat, Black, queer body.”

In addition to his mind, he is also tormented by his parents, who don’t particularly like the fact that he is gay, nor do they believe in his ability to write an autobiographical musical. They’d rather see him write a Tyler Perry-style play, which he is wholly against.

Usher’s blackness contradicts with his “inner white girl” which also contradicts with the expectations of black men.

Through Usher’s journey, he has to discover the strength to stand up for himself, embrace who he is, and succeed in whatever form. It’s a rich, complex ride, and the cast jumps in full force.

The book, lyrics, and music by Michael R. Jackson are a moving, compelling look at how race, body image, and sexuality can truly sideline good, talented, loving people. Usher has been so affected by his family and society that he doubts himself at every turn, even when it is clear he is talented and loveable.

On opening night, McCaskill was giving it his all, although opening night jitters seemed to affect his voice at the outset. As the show progressed, the power and stability of his performance shone through.

The ensemble is nothing short of thrilling, with standouts being J. Cameron Barnett as Thought 2 (as well as a number of other highly memorable characters), John-Andrew Morrison as Thought 4 (and Usher’s mother), and Tarra Conner Jones as Thought 1.

The show does run a bit long for a show without an intermission, and a few plot points and show pieces began to wear out their welcome. A big showstopper called “Precious Little Dream/AIDS is God’s Punishment” stopped the show for it’s vibrancy, but then stopped it as it went on longer than ultimate necessary.

It might be wise to read up on the plot of the musical before seeing it, as the show can sometimes be frenetic, causing dialogue or lyrics to be lost. Similarly, the show doesn’t shy away from honest depiction and discussion of the User’s sexuality, which might cause some of the more conservative crowd to blush.

Overall, though, “A Strange Loop” is an important show and deserves the awards it has been given. It didn’t totally win me over, but I appreciated the performances and message. And as we are still in the midst of Pride month, and as a member of the community myself, it was a good reminder of all we have fought to be proud of—namely, ourselves.

“A Strange Loop” continues through June 30th at the Ahmanson Theater, Los Angeles.
For more information and for tickets, visit www.ctg.org.

7
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Kevin is a long-time movie buff with a wide variety of tastes and fixations in the film world. He cried the moment Benji appeared onscreen in “Benji,” and it took him about four times to finally watch “The Exorcist” (at age 24) without passing out. “Star Wars: A New Hope” was the movie that changed everything and when his obsession with films and filmmaking began. A screenwriter himself (one long-ago horror script sale to New Line remains on a shelf), his first film "Two Tickets to Paradise" that he co-wrote premiered in June 2022 on Hallmark. He is currently working on another for the iconic brand.

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