Critics who have reimagined their role as one mainly concerned with filling out intersectional bingo cards exploded with joy when they encountered Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop (at the Lyceum Theatre), for which the writer provided book, music, and lyrics. It’s too much to ask for Broadway reviewers to restrain themselves when offered a “fat, black, queer” protagonist, and restrain themselves they did not. A retiree meeting her newborn grandchildren could scarcely have reacted more joyfully than critics did to this work. (The Times: “There is no measure of praise that could be too much; after all, this is a show that allows a Black gay man to be vulnerable onstage without dismissing or fetishizing his trauma.”) The show captured the Pulitzer Prize in 2020 and the Tony for Best Musical in 2022.
People who actually have to pay for their tickets might wonder whether watching a “black gay man be vulnerable” is worth two hours of their time, much less the expense of a Broadway excursion, and the answer is: not really. A Strange Loop has a lot of heart, and the meek, roly-poly Jacquel Spivey is hard not to love in the semi-biographical role of Usher, a lonely theater nerd patrolling the aisles at The Lion King who dreams of creating his own show for Broadway. But the piece is essentially a puffed-up downtown cabaret act focused on one character, and, like most cabaret acts, it starts to wear out its welcome within an hour (it runs without an intermission at an hour and forty-five minutes).
A Strange Loop has no plot; it’s mainly a disjointed series of sketches whose songs catalogue Jackson/Usher’s complaints about his homophobic parents, his dry love life, and his penury, all turned into splashy fantasia with the help of an exuberant six-person Greek chorus whose members alternately serve as other characters who frustrate Usher’s ambitions or as his internal doubts and obsessions. The songs (with one notable exception, saved for the closing minutes) are uniformly terrible and frequently sung at earsplitting registers. Jackson has little talent as a composer. Musically his numbers race impatiently from one motif to another every few bars, filled out with clanging anti-harmonies and rarely settling on any one melody out of a justified lack of confidence in the tunes.
Critics who label the piece “complex” are being generous.
Moreover, critics who label the piece “complex” are being generous; the titular allusion to Douglas Hofstadter’s concept of a strange loop of consciousness in his 1979 cognitive-science classic Gödel, Escher, Bach, which Jackson apparently discovered secondhand via a song it inspired on the indie-rock chick Liz Phair’s 1993 album Exile in Guyville, is held up as a mind-blowing concept that plays off infinite-regression theory to produce a structure that only a physics Ph.D. could hope to understand. It’s a tale “of a black, queer writer writing a musical about a black, queer writer about a black queer writer . . .” notes the show’s website. To put it another way, however, A Strange Loop is much like a thousand first novels about struggling writers. It’s also the black, gay equivalent of the late Jonathan Larson’s off-Broadway musical about trying to write an off-Broadway musical, Tick, Tick . . . Boom, which was adapted for the screen by Lin-Manuel Miranda last year and offered marginally better rock songs.
A Strange Loop is, however, much livelier than the other Black Lives Matter offerings that consumed Broadway in the last two years, with occasional irreverently funny moments. Mainly its appeal is in the way it conveys feeling—the desperate longing for love, success, and acceptance that Usher tells us about in more or less every number. He’s such a sad sack that the audience gets emotionally wrapped up in his needs (though I could have done without the borderline pornographic talk and a ghastly scene that simulates anal sex). A blowout number near the end in which Usher dreams up a parody of a Tyler Perry gospel-melodrama that becomes a gay-bashing epic with the refrain “aids is God’s punishment” has more satirical sting than anything Tony Kushner came up with in Angels in America, and it wickedly fooled some audience members into clapping along. Following that, Jackson delivers a sweet and tender piano ballad, “Memory Song,” about being a fragile and confused little boy, that is by far the highlight of the evening and makes all of the hectic and clattering numbers from earlier in the show look even more obtuse. It would have been smart to end right there, but, alas, the show lumbers on for ten more minutes and segues to a grandiose, mawkish production number. By that point I had had much more than enough of Usher’s plaintive moans. Besides, with that Pulitzer, that Tony, and, presumably, an income of tens of thousands of dollars a week, Jackson is hardly a pitiable figure.
Nearby, a revival of Kinky Boots (at Stage 42) came along to underline the changes in how the theater approaches “queer themes,” if that’s the phrase. With its celebration of drag, its earnest message of tolerance, and its pop-rock score, the show would have been considered an edgy off-Broadway offering in the Seventies, a bog-standard Broadway show a generation after that, and now, a further generation later, no longer spicy enough for Broadway (no gay sex scenes here, not even a kiss). Hence it is consigned to the type of cushy off-Broadway venue (in a 499-seat Shubert-owned theater, just one shy of the cutoff for Broadway status) that entices tourists. The only controversy the show could possibly attract today would be from the cultural Left, which could plausibly register objections about the sexually neuter treatment of the lead character, Simon/Lola (Callum Francis), who is obviously a gay man but is not given a love interest nor labeled especially oppressed. The show contains only the lightest acknowledgment of homophobia, voices no complaints about racism, and generally treats drag queens as amusing minstrels rather than as countercultural icons. It is, in short, perfectly calibrated to the tastes of the average busload of visitors from Cincinnati, or anyone else who still finds it slightly naughty that a subset of gay men enjoys dressing like Liza Minnelli.
The musical (barely changed since its 2013–19 Broadway run) is slick, simple, earnest, obvious, and entirely passable entertainment. It offers uncontroversial truisms (“If you’re on the wrong road, turn back,” “You change the world when you change your mind”), notes that you don’t have to do exactly what your dad expected (via the Lola–Charlie duet “I’m Not My Father’s Son”), and enjoins the audience, “Accept someone for who they are.” Quaint notion, but does the theater audience apply that principle to Republicans, whom New York Governor Kathy Hochul recently suggested are not welcome in this state? Perhaps the show will send Hochul some tickets along with a friendly note on tolerance.
These days, a musical that doesn’t seek to leave the audience with an ashen taste in the mouth is increasingly hard to find.
These days, a musical that doesn’t seek to leave the audience with an ashen taste in the mouth is increasingly hard to find, and the erstwhile downtown icon Harvey Fierstein, who now is as avuncular and harmless as Jay Leno, wrote a snappy, breezy book worthy of Las Vegas, adapting the forgotten 2005 British film. Better, the composer-lyricist Cyndi Lauper created a number of tuneful singalongs plus a few solid piano ballads.
The story couldn’t be more formulaic: Charlie (Christian Douglas)—one of the blandest lead characters ever to appear on Broadway—is a personable young fellow whose father runs a proud century-old men’s shoe factory in the depressed post-industrial part of England. When his father dies suddenly, leaving the factory in his hands, Charlie discovers that the business is dying and unsold goods are piling up. A chance encounter with a drag queen, Lola, leads to the idea of retooling the factory as a niche maker of glamorous thigh-high boots for men who enjoy dressing as ladies. Charlie’s complaint, that he is stuck with a money-losing factory, and Lola’s complaint, that a full-grown bloke simply can’t find a rhinestone-studded candy-apple-red boot whose stiletto heel will support his weight, turn out to be each other’s solutions. With designs by Lola, Charlie adapts the product line from fusty to fabulous.
Since there are probably more women than drag queens who might potentially purchase fancy boots, however, a dispute arises about which models should introduce the product line at a Milan show. Charlie thinks the models should be women; Lola argues for drag queens. Guess who wins. The only moment in the show when Charlie is anything but soporifically nice comes when he, not unreasonably, explains to Lola that shoe buyers would probably rather watch beautiful women than clownishly made-up men walk the runway, but this is positioned as a moment of temporary insanity and anti-gay bigotry brought on by business stress. Applause line: “Drag queens are mainstream!”
Meanwhile, in a subplot, a blue-collar lout (Sean Steele) who works in the factory makes snide anti-transgender remarks that culminate in a boxing match with Lola, who—twist!—turns out to be a trained boxer, from back in the time when he was content to be a boy called Simon. Lauren (Danielle Hope), a sweetie who works in the factory, sings a song about her crush on boring Charlie, who is nominally committed to marry the fashionable London girl Nicola (Brianna Stoute). Yet since Nicola is not supplied with any dance numbers to explain her feelings and seems to be forgotten by the other characters much of the time, she is obviously irrelevant to the proceedings. That’s a shame, because Stoute gives the sense she might have done quite a lot with her role. Hope, meanwhile, is an absolute doll, a human sparkler who instantly wins over the audience with her just-gaga-about-Charlie dance moves. She stole the show, at least on the night I attended, when Francis, the star of the piece, couldn’t go on and an undistinguished understudy took his place. As for Lola’s opposite number, the role of Charlie is so lacking in depth, texture, or nuance that the actor who plays him, Douglas, must not be graded on ordinary standards but rather should be applauded for managing to stay awake throughout the performance.
Two Jews, Talking (at the Theatre at St. Clement’s through December) brings back three ancient cultural artifacts: Barney Miller, The Love Boat, and face masks, which an usher sternly ordered audience members to don before entering. Before the show, an employee came out to remind the audience to remain masked at all times, and the line drew a hearty round of applause from a segment of the same audience that presumably concluded the evening in restaurants with hundreds of unmasked diners. If the need to publicly signal allegiance to scientifically meritless antiviral measures is going to continue to obsess a segment of the population, such people should simply get the word “Fauci” tattooed on their foreheads and leave the rest of us alone. Yet so demented is the world of theater (in which, naturally, everyone got covid) that the Lincoln Center tkts booth reopened only on September 6, two and a half years after it closed to “slow the spread.”
As for the show: dim, dull, dismal. Maybe the muffling effect of the masks made it hard to hear the laughs? Or maybe this show is a stiff vanity production. The evening is divided into two brief one-act plays. In the first half hour, Hal Linden (the titular police captain in the Seventies sitcom Barney Miller) and Bernie Kopell (who played the ship’s doctor on the contemporaneous abc show The Love Boat) play two of Moses’s flock in their thirtieth year of wandering the desert after having fled Egypt. Moses, can you believe this guy? Why won’t he stop and ask directions? After the world’s slowest costume change (the play stops dead for several minutes), the two actors reappear as Wexler and Plotnick, two men sharing a bench in what appears to be an ordinary park on Long Island in the present day. The proceedings limp on for another forty-five minutes.
Edwin Weinberger, the sitcom veteran who styles himself as “Ed. Weinberger” and who co-created such television staples as Taxi and The Cosby Show, wrote the two-hander, directed without imagination by Dan Wackerman, in which these barely acquainted men reminisce and share their grievances in the thinnest possible terms. Both pairs of Jews seem mainly interested in discussing orgies and food. Given what we’ve learned in recent years, the show creates the sense that we’re locked in a room with a couple of extremely entitled old Hollywood executives who for many years feasted on whatever was available and are glum about no longer being invited to help themselves to the bounty. I fear that no one told Weinberger that the potential audience for two horny men with a combined age of 180 waxing lascivious about women’s breasts might be limited.
Nearly every line in the play would have been right at home in a Vegas act in the Sixties.
The sense of dying shadows the play, and by that I mean the jokes. They offer all the spirit of some desiccated and enervated band of comedy-shop dwarves with names like Dusty, Crusty, Musty, and Rusty. Nearly every line in the play would have been right at home in a Vegas act in the Sixties. A riff about what’s Jewish and what’s gentile? (“Triscuits are gentile. Saltines are Jewish.”) Complaints about going to the doctor? A running gag has Wexler launching into a series of long jokes, stopping periodically to tell Plotnick to let him know if he’s heard this one before, only to have Plotnick cut him off with the punch line at the crucial moment. Mostly Kopell is content to play the straight man to set up Linden’s zingers, but these payoffs are so banal that they require a major charitable effort to laugh. And Kopell spent large portions of the evening staring straight ahead instead of looking at the man seated next to him. Either he was reading his lines off a prompter or he forgot there was another actor present.
The thin and tenuous connection between the two acts is some grumbling about God, about whom all four men harbor suspicions, and the Ten Commandments. There is no new angle to any of this. These observations are so banal—what harm could there be in coveting your neighbor’s wife?—that it requires dusting off a term from another era, “Borscht Belt,” to describe them. People younger than, say, thirty, whose grandparents might not be as old as Linden and Kopell, may not even recognize that this kind of badinage was once labeled comedy.
Sputtering to a close after seventy minutes or so, the play ends with a cheap gambit associated with hack comedians: phony pathos. To a theater audience, mentioning death by aids is tantamount to Jerry Lewis busting out one more go at “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Weinberger’s ploy to leverage the aids holocaust is tacky and unseemly.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 2, on page 41
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