I now understand why the capsule reviews and descriptions of Michael R. Jackson's first Broadway musical, A Strange Loop, were so obscure and confusing. It is an idiosyncratic creation of the first order that is nearly impossible to sum up.

Let it first be said that Jackson broke new ground for the Broadway theater world with this piece, which just had its West Coast premiere Wednesday at ACT's Toni Rembe Theater. A Strange Loop won the 2022 Tony Award for Best Musical despite being in a category all on its own as musicals go. And while being a sort of meta performance piece about the act of writing a highly personal musical, it is also very much a story about, as Jackson puts it in the show's opening number, "travel[ing] the world in a fat Black queer body."

The show's main character is named Usher — because, we learn in the opening scene, his day job is as a Disney usher at Broadway's The Lion King while he spends nights writing a musical called A Strange Loop. And he goes about articulating emotions, family dynamics, sexual proclivities, and sexual anxieties that have rarely if ever been articulated on a Broadway stage. Certainly they have never been articulated this rawly, without filter, with the aim of both calling out to kindred souls and showing everyone else the chaotic machinations of his mind.

The other six actors in the show portray Usher's inner thoughts, and they're listed in the program as Thought 1, Thought 2, Thought 3, etc. While they are assigned specific psychological terrain in an opening scene — one is focused on financial stress, for instance, and another is "your daily self-loathing" — they function through the majority of the show as both an ensemble and Greek chorus, with several of them swapping taking on Usher's mother and father, as well as other recurring characters like his agent, dubbed Agent Fairweather.

(L-R):J. Cameron Barnett(Thought 2),Tarra Conner Jones(Thought 1),Jamari Johnson Williams(Thought 6),John-Andrew Morrison(Thought 4),Malachi McCaskill(Usher),Jordan Barbour(Thought 5), and Avionce Hoyles(Thought 3) in 'A Strange Loop,' performing at A.C.T.’s Toni Rembe Theater now through May 12, 2024. Photo credit: Alessandra Mello

A Strange Loop is at its funniest and most digestible in its first half, which feels the most structured like a traditional musical. That is intentional, and this being a meta musical, Usher even sings that he should "Define a formal structure, so people understand, pull out the stops to show his story's full potential."

The strongest songs in the show include the second song, "Today," that lays out a day in the life of the main character and introduces his Thought chorus (the funniest being Thought 1, a.k.a. Supervisor of Your Sexual Ambivalence, played by the marvelous Tarra Conner Jones); and "Inner White Girl," in which Usher describes his love for the over-confident inner white girl inside of him who loves Liz Phair and Joni Mitchell, and who doesn't have to obey her parents.

We also get the hilarious introduction, over the phone, of Usher's family — whose names in the show are all characters from The Lion King — and when Agent Fairweather offers an opportunity to write a gospel play for Tyler Perry's production company, we get the first hilarious hot take on Tyler Perry's oeuvre. Jackson clearly sees Mr. Perry's popular work as the antithesis of everything he holds dear, and it pains him to no end that his mother, especially, can't get enough of it.

Things get more intense and chaotic in the show's second half, and I won't do any more to spoil it. Like I said, this show, like racial and sexual identity, can't be easily summed up. The songs are densely wordy and it will take multiple listens of the cast album before I even appreciate all the jokes and wit that Jackson has packed in.

(L-R): Avionce Hoyles (Thought 3), J. Cameron Barnett (Thought 2), Malachi McCaskill (Usher), Jamari Johnson Williams (Thought 6), Jordan Barbour (Thought 5), and John-Andrew Morrison(Thought 4) in 'A Strange Loop,' performing at A.C.T.’s Toni Rembe Theater now through May 12, 2024. Photo credit: Alessandra Mello

Suffice it to say, though, AIDS remains a family obsession, the takedown of Tyler Perry only gets more operatic in scope, and there is one fairly graphic on-stage sex scene between Usher and a white "daddy" he meets online that is awkward to the point of painful. For everyone.

As Usher, Malachi McCaskill does an admirable and terrific job carrying the show in what is easily one of the most exhausting lead roles ever written for the musical stage. That said, as an undergraduate still at UNC Greensboro, studying musical theater, his greenness as a performer occasionally comes through.

The direction by Stephen Brackett, who directed the show both on and off-Broadway — winning both a Tony nomination and a Drama Desk Award — is superb. And it's no small feat to tame the chaos of this piece and let all of its humor shine.

The ensemble also does a stellar job across the board, with Avionce Hoyles as Thought 3 and J. Cameron Barnett as Thought 2 doing some especially scene-chewing work.

I can't deny that A Strange Loop is worthy of its many, many accolades, which include the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Much of this praise is owed to the bare honesty with which it was written, and the fact that Black queer identity has rarely been so thoughtfully explored on stage. It is a singular piece, at times a tour de force, about a man trying to forge his own identity and finding that identity itself a loop, and how does one even try to explain that in a musical?

For those familiar with the idiosyncratic work of William Finn, the Broadway composer of Falsettos, the closest comparison I can come up with is a musical Finn wrote that never made it to Broadway, A New Brain. That tells the story of a middle-aged white gay man diagnosed with a brain tumor who sets about trying to write a song for his miserable day job on a children's TV show and simultaneously sum up all that he's learned in life because it might be the last thing he ever writes.

By contrast, Jackson's work feels very much like a first thing — a promising start to what will hopefully be a long and inventive career in theater, but a product of youthful passion and chaos and confusion. Both A New Brain and A Strange Loop have and will be called self-indulgent, because they plainly are. But it could be argued that such indulgence is sometimes necessary to go deep into a single subject, and to go deep, emotionally, in the way that musical theater uniquely can.

While it may be an imperfect and messy work of art, it is most certainly a gorgeous and compelling work of art, and easily the best thing ACT has featured on its main stage in a long while. See it while you can, because pieces like this that break molds and push boundaries don't draw in Tyler Perry-sized crowds, and don't always get revived too quickly.

'A Strange Loop' plays through May 12 at ACT's Toni Rembe Theater. Find tickets here.