A Strange Loop (Original Broadway Cast Recording) | Review

Jim Munson
Monday, February 27, 2023

The distinctiveness of Michael R Jackson’s writing comes through loud and clear

Listening to the original Broadway cast recording of A Strange Loop straight through can induce a feeling of whiplash. While most of it had me positively giddy with pleasure, a few tracks were pretty hard to take. First, the ample good news. The distinctiveness of Michael R Jackson’s writing – the bracing emotional honesty, the outrageous humour, the taking on of sacred cows, the inseparability of his incantatory lyrics from his propulsive music, the sheer audacity of saying exactly what he wants to say – comes through loud and clear. Jackson combines his own lived experience as a perpetual outsider, his love of confessional singer-songwriters, his extensive knowledge of Musical Theatre and his talent for composing irresistible earworms into a theatrical juggernaut that feels truly fresh and fearless.

On record, this is totally Jaquel Spivey’s show. It perfectly captures his immensely appealing performance in the central role of Usher

The recording even improves on the experience of seeing the show on Broadway because the sound is infinitely better than in the theatre. What a joy it is to be able to make out the twists and turns of Jackson’s torrential wordplay without having them overwhelmed by the rambunctious, electric-bass and percussion-driven arrangements. On record, this is totally Jaquel Spivey’s show. It perfectly captures his immensely appealing performance in the central role of Usher, a zaftig Black gay man striving to write a musical as he deals with racism, not being ‘Black enough’, religious homophobes, fat-shaming, the hegemony of the white gay community and his self-loathing. Spivey sings on 14 tracks, delivering a mammoth Momma Rose of a performance, even as his humble tenor rarely rises above a mezzo-forte. If the lack of visuals makes it hard to track the individual contributions of the phenomenal supporting cast portraying the ‘Thoughts’ coursing relentlessly through Usher’s brain, that’s understandable.

The album wades into treacherous waters when depicting Usher’s alcoholic father and fundamentalist mother. While these songs serve a dramatic purpose in propelling Usher to a catharsis, listening to them is an endurance test. A Tyler Perry-inspired gospel phantasmagoria culminates in the repetition of the line ‘AIDS is God’s punishment’ 16 times. Jackson’s unsparing sexual frankness might also not be everyone’s cup of tea. As amusing and even disarming as this can be, it sometimes feels like he’s piling it on just because he can, à la the uber-scatological ‘Joseph Smith’ number from The Book of Mormon. That said, with my player set to skip certain tracks, A Strange Loop is one of the most exhilarating original cast recordings I’ve heard in years.

Album details

Michael R Jackson book, music, lyrics

Cast Jaquel Spivey, L Morgan Lee, James Jackson Jr, John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey, Antwayn Hopper

Band Rona Siddiqui, Mike Pettry, Chris Reza, Beth Callen, Ian Jesse, Marques Walls

Ghostlight Records