Sound Advice Reviews
With June busting out all over as Pride Month, the time is right to raise the LGBTQ+ flag as we raise a toast to two releases related to that theme. Adding to its collection of awards with two Tonys is A Strange Loop, by and about a gay writer. And it's the right time for My Man, mostly a collection of men singing of their affection for other men–including many old love songs, this time with male-specific nouns and pronouns proudly present.
A STRANGE LOOP
Frustrating quests for acceptance, love, self-esteem, and success in his chosen field are what Usher–the gay, Black, overweight protagonist–faces in the in-your-face musical A Strange Loop. Composer/lyricist/bookwriter Michael R. Jackson draws on his own personal parallels to draw us in. The negativity and insensitivity of the people in Usher's life and the voices in his head make making headway super-challenging. Listening to Jaquel Spivey throw himself into this burdened, beaten-down character's angst, catharsis, yearning, and soul-searching on the Broadway cast recording engenders sympathy and respect for this underdog under inspection. Giving him credit for not giving up when everyone seems to put him down, we as audience can root for him to persevere as he faces his demons, his doubts, and his truths, all the while pursuing his dream to be a writer.
The committed star's performance persuades via vulnerability projected, rather than loudly loading up on rage and throbbing woe-is-me overdramatized despair. When Usher's parents shame him for his homosexuality, citing religion-based rejection or for rejecting a job offer, the pain Usher responds with radiates in a way that's loud and clear even in slyly soft-serve mode, with lilt in some modest melodies.
To make money, Usher is urged to accept the gig of "Writing a Gospel Play." At this juncture, a detour into tour-de-force parody skewers cluelessly bad taste in musical theatre, replete with racial stereotypes, culminating in a wildly misguided upbeat proclamation that "AIDS Is God's Punishment." On the wistful side is his "Memory Song," initially a stand-alone piece, the first to be folded into the long-gestating project (18 years!) which began as a monologue. Elements of the musical feel cathartic, others are confrontational or searing, and some moments are pointed but breezy, such as the references to the stifled gay Black man letting loose his "Inner White Girl."
The scoop about A Strange Loop is, frankly, that it's frank and fraught, and non-blushing about language choices that include vulgarities such as the F-word and the N-word, and crass terms for body parts and sex acts. A little goes a long way, but be on notice that there's a lot more than a little. Some of it is playful, some of it serves to highlight insulting interactions. Don't look for romance either–or, for that matter, the compensation of rapturously satisfying lust in "Exile to Gayville" or the stressed-while-depressed encounter with "Inwood Daddy."
There was an Off-Broadway cast recording of the show in 2019, but A Strange Loop's leap to Broadway has inspired this second version, even though the song material is identical beyond a few tiny changes and Spivey is the only non-returning member in the six-person cast. The other five, in pithy solo lines and ensemble harmonies, are used as part of the echo chamber of naysayer voices in Usher's mind, reinforcing ever-present pessimism and perceptions. Their roles are thus identified as "Thought 1," "Thought 2," etc. Although the ensemble members also voice flesh-and-blood people in the plot, it's their appearances as the "Thoughts" that count most in making an impact and making the show more inventive, injecting some distinct attitudes and sassy humor to relieve the gloom. Vocal layers and a range of timbres add interest to plainer or repeated melodic bits. In their presentations of the real people, L Morgan Lee brings a very welcome breath of fresh air and positivity as a woman lending "A Sympathetic Ear" and encouragement to our discouraged hero. The four men who round out the company are John-Andrew Morrison, John-Michael Lyles, Jason Veasey, and James Jackson, Jr.
The 17-track cast recording has no overture or other instrumental number; music director Rona Siddiqui, a keyboardist in the five-member band, conducts.
Many will identify with and prize this Pulitzer Prize-winning piece that's collected numerous theatre awards. Some find it refreshingly bold, while it may leave others cold, but A Strange Loop hits us in the gut with its unapologetic look at how people are looked at in a myopic manner. And it shouldn't feel strange to want to consider and remember that and have our eyes opened. Give it a try.
Prolific producer Chip Deffaa has done it again. He serves up a full and varied banquet of songs and singers (including himself) that, first and foremost, entertain as they help us appreciate well-crafted musical numbers full of heart. A warm but resolute gay-affirming attitude prevails, as in past releases called Gay Love, The Boy Next Door, and I Must Have That Man, as well as Mad About the Boy (a stage piece). The 23-page booklet, including many small photos, is chock full of info and appreciation regarding the performers, the songs, and past projects.
My Man: Songs of Gay Love, Lust, Loss, and Longing continues the series' very long association with musical director/pianist Richard Danley (present on most tracks), canny co-conspirator in creating crisp and irresistibly lively old-school ambiance. Violinist Andy Stein astutely adds some flavorful colors here and there. The project brings back many of the performers featured before (the new generation that's game and green, plus evergreen talents longer in tooth and theatrical resumés) and again recalls the legacies of major show business figures from the early decades of the 20th century. These include those the producer/director dedicated full albums and theatre projects to: Fanny Brice (whose signature torch song "My Man" is referenced in the set's name, with a rendition by Seth Sikes that's surprisingly low-key, rather than going for a fraught or overwrought approach) and Irving Berlin. For the Berlin choice, Sidney Myer winks wickedly at the Annie Get Your Gun male lead leading us to believe he has a way with women, hilariously sashaying through "I'm a Bad, Bad Man." With no end of innuendo and well-timed double entendre, it's more Mae West than wild wild West.
Ingratiatingly cheery numbers bring sunny serenity to experienced or hoped-to-being-experienced romances between men. Guys sing about the guys they gaze upon without the disguise of playing straight as would be de rigueur when the material circa one century old was written and first performed. So Jon Peterson can claim confidence that affection is requited, rejoicing in knowing "he's my lovin' man" in "Everybody Loves My Baby," and Barrett Foa glibly admits to the many shortcomings of his Mr. Non-perfect as he charmingly proclaims that, nevertheless, "He's a Good Man to Have Around." Mr. Foa switches to serious mode on something brought out from the vaults. It's a duet with A.J. Irvin who passed away in 2017; the assignment is the heavy and hardly happy "Happy Birthday to Me," presenting duo-portraits of hustler and client. Music and lyric for this are by Brett Kristofferson, whose work also introduces us to "Paul," hymn to a gym locker room encounter, sung with aplomb by Chad Anthony Miller.
Authentic-feel vaudeville smarts and smiles are on full display with two cute, little-known treats sung by the debonair Deffaa himself: "Ah Ha!" and "I Like You Best of All," the latter shared with the reliably robust Keith Anderson, who's heard to good advantage on a few other tracks, including the emotional and nostalgic portrait of a gay hangout, "Mary's Bar," a gem written by John Wallowitch, and a Cole Porter medley. There are five Porter items in all, with Alec Deland stepping up to the full plate for the sophisticated, sighing bittersweet perspectives reflections "The Extra Man" and "Weren't We Fools?" (Something by Porter was present on the previous gay-centric releases, but he's never been more prominently on hand than on My Man.)
With his vibrant and assertive declaiming of two selections from the score of La Cage aux Folles, "I Am What I Am" and "The Best of Times," musical theatre veteran Lee Roy Reams is the audio equivalent a Gay Pride parade's grand marshal. Along the parade route are many other highlights, such as a poignant and potent recollection of a love affair that seemed to be "Everything in the Whole Wide World," written by Michael Holland and captivatingly captured by Jarrod Caffaro. And there's some saucy spot-on humor, too, serving as the salty counterpoint to the sweet confections. Jay Rogers deliciously derides musical theatre's big names with small vocal gifts, naming names of the vocally challenged in Barry Kleinbort's "Leading Lady Valentine." What a hoot!
Not to be denied, two women join the otherwise all-male company: Santa Claire Hirsch merrily steamrolls along, seeking "The Only [Straight] Boy in the Room"; and Suzanne Dressler dresses up the middle of the three-part Porter platter with a suitably brash "Anything Goes."
Not everything is quite a home run, but that's not so concerningly consequential for something stuffed generously with 24 tracks, with many worthy discoveries and old chestnuts to cherish anew. Some selections are long (over four minutes) and some are short (under two minutes), but the long and the short of it is that My Man... is a loving look inside the sensibilities of gay pride.