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Review: Talking Tony Awards. Hello, Muddah, Hello, Faddah!

Tony Awards, CBS, June 16, 2024 A Strange Loop, Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, June 5-30, 2024

June 18, 2024 | By Bruce R. Feldman

Another Broadway season has come and gone, its final curtain marked by the Tony Awards a few nights ago. What was notable this year was the eleventh-hour arrival of some of the juiciest plays and musicals.


Best Play Tony winner "Stereophonic." (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

April alone brought the Tony winners The Outsiders (Best Musical), Stereophonic (Best Play), Suffs (Best Score and Book of a Musical), Hell’s Kitchen (Best Featured Actress, Kecia Lewis),Illinoise (Best Choreography), and The Great Gatsby (Best Costumes)


Mother Play also opened that month, scoring multiple Tony nominations but failing to win any.  An Enemy of the People debuted at the end of March, winning Best Lead Actor for Jeremy Strong.


The biggest musical revival of the year, (yet another) Cabaret, with an outré Eddie Redmayne as the M.C., also arrived in April. The season may have bowed out to an enthusiastic chorus of bravos, but the same could not be said of the Tony Awards. The broadcast was an unpraiseworthy mix of good and meh. 


On the plus side, the show offered a number of heartfelt and funny acceptance speeches, several pleasurable musical production numbers, a solemn in memoriam segment highlighted by Nicole Scherzinger’s emotional rendition of What We Did for Love, some surprises (The Outsiders' nod for best musical), and an overdue award to Hell’s Kitchen standout Kecia Lewis, who began her career 23 years earlier in Dream Girls.


On the other hand, host Adriana DeBose, a generally energetic performer, came off as more subdued than scintillating, and most – on social media, at least – disparaged the anemic opening number. As DeBose starred in and choreographed it and also produced the broadcast, she had only herself to answer to, as well as to blame.

The 15 musicals up for awards embodied a confounding mix. Only a handful were what you might call traditional Broadway musicals, and these were the minor events of the season.

What the couch critics seemed to agree on was that the Empire State of Mind number from Hell’s Kitchen was terrific and would have been a better choice to start off the ceremony. That this was immediately obvious to so many makes you wonder why it did not occur to any of the show’s many other producers or any of the executives at the American Theatre Wing or Broadway Theatre League.


Alicia Keys, who wrote Hell’s Kitchen, and Jay-Z, who composed the song, joined the soulful cast on the stage of the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. They don’t perform in the show at the Shubert Theatre, which might come as a disappointment to the legions of tourists who will now buy tickets because of the television plug. Funny, I suppose, unless you are one of the unwary shelling out $348 for an orchestra seat.


The 15 musicals up for awards embodied a confounding mix. Only a handful – The Great Gatsby, Harmony, Back to the Future – were what you might call traditional Broadway musicals, and these were the minor events of the season.


Most of the Tony nominated musicals were something else. What is clear is that for some time now there have been two Broadways – the revivals and the few new shows that reflect the style of the Golden Age of the 1940s through the Sondheim era and the jukebox-rock-pop-experimental-nonlinear works that the young, the tourists, and anyone who has no idea what a theater party is prefer today.


A Strange Loop, now at The Ahmanson in Los Angeles (and another late-to-the party guest, as the play premiered in New York in 2019) lies squarely in the latter category. It was a Tony winner a few years back for Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical and also winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.


Pay attention, class!


Malachi McCaskill and the cast of "A Strange Loop." (Photo: Alessandra Mello)

The show is about a conflicted Black gay man struggling to write a musical about a conflicted black gay man, a kind of discomfiting paradox in which the hero’s journey ends up back where he started. (Explaining this might be seen as a bit of a spoiler, but then so is the title of the play.)

While working as an usher at The Lion King on Broadway, Usher (a superb Malachi McCaskill) alternately fantasizes and frets over the show he is writing at night. Cast members acting as his thoughts remind him of his many personal and artistic doubts and struggles, his enormous lack of self-esteem, his perpetual self-loathing, and his pathetic love life, or, really, the absence of any human physical contact at all.

This does not sound like a barrel of laughs, except that it is, thanks to the disquieting but bitterly funny and outrageously imaginative book and lyrics by Michael R. Jackson. The songs are satisfying if not exactly memorable, the cast uniformly outstanding, and Stephen Brackett’s direction and all of the technical credits are right on the money.


The storytelling is at its best in the several encounters Usher has with his understanding but conservative parents. When his mother asks him to write a Tyler Perry-like gospel play, Usher does so, acting out along with the Thoughts all of the parts. It’s a hilarious, wacky tour-de-force until his mother realizes that her role as written is unflattering. This mother-son confrontation turns acrid, then conciliatory, but like so much of the story it is never fully resolved.


In this regard, Jackson’s narrative becomes much more than comic entertainment. Underneath, it’s the story of a struggling artist’s agonizing search for the clarity, love, and self-acceptance that most of us seek in life. Usher doesn’t achieve any of it, only the realization that he will have to start his quest over and over again, because, after all, his journey in life is an endless, strange loop.


We are not in Anatevka anymore.

“A Strange Loop” Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles (213) 628-2772,


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