Malachi McCaskill (Usher) center. Photo: Alessandra Mello.

A Strange Loop

American Conservatory Theater (ACT) San Francisco

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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“A Strange Loop” is a creative, disquieting, raunchy, and astonishing novel musical play. It’s no wonder it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The lead, Usher (amazing actor Malachi McCaskill is currently a college junior!), a self-identified 25-year-old Black, fat, queer man, is indeed a Broadway usher at the perpetual musical, “The Lion King.” In his off-hours, he obsesses over his own musical creation called “A Strange Loop.” It’s about a 25-year-old Black, queer, fat usher writing a musical about a 25-year-old Black, queer, fat usher writing a musical about a 25-year-old Black, queer, fat usher … ad infinitum.

What is astounding about “A Strange Loop” is how super-talented book, music, and lyrics writer Michael R. Jackson displays the protagonist’s private, complex, and disturbing thoughts as essential characters in the production. Thoughts 1 through 6 haunt our Usher by singing, dancing, and popping out with intrusive thoughts about his unfulfilled life in New York and his church-going family life back home. No depraved ideas or crude language is spared. It’s very moving and impactful.

The persona of his gospel and Tyler Perry-loving mother is frequently invasive. She loves him, but not his queerness, and worries about his likely death from HIV/AIDS. His father, often shown holding a liquor bottle, makes ugly suggestive remarks about whether Usher is attracted to him since they are both men.

Yet, Usher’s saddest and most troubling thoughts are about his lonely life in New York. His search for love and understanding can’t be found among gay dating apps, and Usher lives with rejection for being “too Black,” “too fat,” and “too feminine.” We see a graphic sadomasochistic sex scene that leaves Usher more confused than before.

Usher is also in the midst of artistic struggles. He belittles the Broadway hit “Wicked” and sneers at “Hamilton’s” high prices. “A Strange Loop” ends without meaningful changes occurring in Usher’s life, but he retains his artistic vision and personal integrity.

Although “A Strange Loop” is a musical, the music itself sometimes seems repetitive. And as fabulous as Malachi McCaskill is as Usher, his voice lacked range on opening night. The Thoughts made up for any shortfall with their more assured singing and creative dancing talent. The imaginative and complex staging and the original Broadway team, director Stephen Brackett, choreographer Raja Feather Kelly, set designer Arnulfo Maldonado, and lighting designer Jen Schriever bring excitement and immediacy to the action.

“A Strange Loop,” which premiered at New York’s off-Broadway Playwrights Horizons in May 2019, enjoyed a 2022 Broadway run, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and was the recipient of 11 Tony Award nominations, the most of any show in 2022. The production received the Tony Award for Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical. Grab tickets as soon as you can.

“Strange Loop’s” length is approximately one hour and 45 minutes, without an intermission. Masks are encouraged but optional. Tickets in San Francisco are $25 – $137; tickets in Los Angeles are $35–$155.

By Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2024 All Rights Reserved

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