Nominated for 11 Tony Awards including Best New Musical, A Strange Loop, Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, has just landed at the Barbican for a strictly limited season.
The meta musical tells the story of Usher, a young, gay, and Black writer, desperate to escape his life as a theatre usher, so decides to write a musical about a young, gay, Black writer whose writing a musical about a young, gay, Black writer…and so on. We see Usher struggle with his identity, sexuality, and desires while trying to navigate the harsh modern world and the circles within circles of his life. Directed by Stephen Brackett, Usher is joined by the hilarious six-person ensemble who personify his inner thoughts and feelings from self-loathing to sexual ambivalence.
Kyle Ramar Freeman who led the original Broadway cast, truly shines as Usher. On stage for the entire duration of the non-stop 100-minute show, his performance was mesmerising. Freeman artfully encapsulates Usher’s complexities, as we see him reflect on feeling like an outsider to what he calls the “gay whitetriachy”, wanting to be authentic in his work and avoid writing another “Tyler Perry Gospel musical” and his own family trauma. Freeman’s impressive characterisation was complimented beautifully by his spectacular vocals, we see Usher’s character grow through his voice, becoming stronger and more confident by the end.
Despite the harder themes of race, sexuality, and mental health emerging, the witty script provides comic relief and is sharp and clever as Usher often faces his struggles with dark humour. Each of Jackson’s songs is a masterpiece, from the campy ‘Inner White Girl’ with its racial undertones to the gospel-style ‘Precious Little Dream / AIDS Is God’s Punishment’ with all its gut-wrenching satire, the lyrics are clever, with plenty of nods to other shows like The Colour Purple.
Despite the show following Usher’s story, that’s not to say that the rest of the cast didn’t make their mark. Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea, Danny Bailey, Eddie Elliott, Sharlene Hector, Tendai Humphrey Sitima, and Yeukayi Ushe are just as impressive, from portraying caricatures of Usher’s unsupportive parents to playing a hilarious Tyler Perry-loving Harriet Tubman, they truly bring Usher’s layered story to life. A true standout was Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea as Usher’s “Self-Loathing”, he had a great rapport with Freeman. With plenty of hilarious one-liners and sassy quips, Armarkwei-Laryea shined every time he stepped on stage.
Raja Feather Kelly’s sharp choreography seems to draw similarities from the flair and finesse of New York City’s queer ballroom scene and as the show becomes more and more absurd these movements become even more dramatic. Arnulfo Maldonado’s clever staging, which focuses on six brick archways where his personified thoughts reside, further reinforces Usher’s sense of loneliness and isolation. As Usher’s thoughts and feelings become more intensified, the sets become bigger and more elaborate. From six brick doorways to a towering gospel set lit up by red lights as Usher gradually regains his sense of self and overcomes his inner demons.
With Pride celebrations underway, there’s no better time to catch this powerful and thought-provoking production that offers an insight into the struggles of being black, fat, and queer while also celebrating the power of self-love and finding your voice in shaping your identity. A Strange Loop is not one to be missed.
A Strange Loop is playing at The Barbican until 9th September. You can find out more here: https://strangeloopmusical.com/
Reviewer: Gemma Prince
Reviewed: 29th June 2023
North West End UK Rating: