Regional Reviews: Boston
David Byrne's American Utopia
Also see Nancy's review of Choir Boy
Attired in matching gray suits, gray shirts, bare feet, and bearing strapped-on instruments, the uniformity of the musicians gives an impression of a classy-looking marching band, and the virtuosity of the numerous percussionists evokes the explosive sounds that emanate from a drum and bugle corps. In addition to half a dozen on percussion (Jacquelene Acevedo, Gustavo Di Dalva, Daniel Freedman, Tim Keiper, co-music director Mauro Refosco, Stéphane San Juan), Byrne is joined on guitar by Angie Swan and Bobby Wooten on bass, and co-music director Karl Mansfield on keyboard. Featured vocalists and dancers are Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba, although everyone in the band sings and is in constant motion around the stage.
Parson's inventive choreography, the many moves of which give Giarmo and Kuumba a machine-like (in a good way) quality, and the instrumental underpinnings of American Utopia are the ultimate reasons to recommend the show. Byrne is a down-to-earth host, guiding the audience through his musical journey and pointing out discoveries along the way, and it was very clear to me (a Byrne neophyte) that his audience is a devoted one. He explores himself and his adopted country (he became a U.S. citizen in 2012) through his music and lyrics, positing that both are works in progress. While not noticeably political, the show contains statements about immigration and inclusiveness.
All but one of the musical numbers are Byrne originals, the majority penned with long-time collaborator Brian Eno. However, arguably one of the most powerful songs is "Hell You Talmabout" by Janelle Monae, a rhythmic protest anthem that names several African Americans who died as a result of encounters with law enforcement and/or racial violence, and encourages the audience to echo back their names. At the other end of the audience participation spectrum, little encouragement was needed to get everyone on their feet to bounce and dance to the infectious beat of "Burning Down the House."
The show begins with Byrne seated at a table on a bare stage, bathed in a beam of light. Throughout the first song ("Here"), he examines a model of a brain, as curtains of chains are slowly raised from the floor to the top of the proscenium on all three sides. That's it in terms of "set decoration," but layer upon layer of light (Rob Sinclair) and sound (Pete Keppler) design enhance the experience while never distracting from the main event. As the program nears its conclusion, Byrne makes a brief speech about being a work in progress and how we are all connected. The curtains are drawn up to the ceiling, again revealing the bare walls, and the entire ensemble performs "One Fine Day" (Byrne/Eno) a cappella, perhaps to imply that simplicity is the key that unlocks Utopia.
David Byrne's American Utopia, runs through September 28, 2019, at Emerson Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston Street, Boston MA. For tickets and information, call 888-616-0272 or visit www.EmersonColonialTheatre.com.
Featuring: David Byrne, Jacquelene Acevedo, Gustavo Di Dalva, Daniel Freedman, Chris Giarmo, Tim Keiper, Tendayi Kuumba, Karl Mansfield, Mauro Refosco, Stéphane San Juan, Angie Swan, Bobby Wooten III
Choreography and Musical Staging by Annie-B Parson; Production Consultant, Alex Timbers; Associate Choreographer, Elizabeth Dement; Production Stage Manager, Gregory T. Livoti; Stage Manager, Julie DeVore; Lighting Design, Rob Sinclair; Sound Design, Pete Keppler; Music Director, Karl Mansfield, Mauro Refosco