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David Byrne’s American Utopia

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 20, 2019

David Byrne’s American Utopia Production consultant Alex Timbers. Choreography and musical staging by Annie-B Parson. Associate choreographer Elizabeth DeMent. Lighting design by Rob Sinclair. Sound design by Pete Keppler. Music directors Karl Mansfield and Mauro Refosco. Cast: David Byrne, Jacquelene Acevedo, Gustavo Di Dalva, Daniel Freedman, Chris Giarmo, Tim Keiper, Tendayi Kuumba, Karl Mansfield, Mauro Refosco, Stéphane San Juan, Angie Swan, and Bobby Wooten III.
Theatre: Hudson Theatre, 139-141 West 44th Street between 6th and Broadway

David Byrne and members of the company
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Occupying a territory somewhere between rock concert and musical theater you'll find David Byrne's American Utopia, opening tonight for what is currently scheduled to be a three-month stay at the Hudson Theatre. This is no eardrum-shattering, pyrotechnics-filled spectacle. It's just a great audience-friendly performer surrounded and supported by a gifted group of musicians, singers, and dancers, with enough staging and choreography to justify its place on Broadway.

Entrenched fans of the 67-year-old Byrne are sure to have a grand time. But the same is also true if you only have a vague recollection from the 1970s and 1980s of his new wave band Talking Heads or Jonathan Demme's concert film of that group, called "Stop Making Sense." Ditto if you only know Byrne from the rock musical he wrote with Fatboy Slim, Here Lies Love. Or even if you are a newcomer. All are welcome!

To be clear, American Utopia is mostly a concert. Its aspirational title is the same as that of Byrne's studio album released last year and the national and international tour that preceded tonight's opening. I'm not exactly sure what he means by the title, but I'd suggest calling it "Start Making Sense." Because even if there isn't a plot as such, there is a theme, one that gently tries to steer our thinking away from the political dystopic maelstrom that threatens to drown us all, and urges us to look to and take care of each other instead.

The performance begins with Mr. Byrne sitting alone on the stage, holding up a model of the human brain and remarking on its functions. The opening number, "Here," starts with Byrne pointing out the different structures and their purpose. "Here is a region of abundant details," he sings. "Here is a region that is seldom used." But soon, he gets to the heart of the matter and, I'd venture to say, to the heart of the overall show: "As it passes through your neurons. Like a whisper in the dark. Raise your eyes to one who loves you. It is safe right where you are."

This motif, of reaching out and offering up our better selves, suffuses the program. Mostly it's done with subtlety (you've got to pay attention to the lyrics); occasionally it becomes more blatant, as when he stops to talk about the diversity of his incredibly talented band members, and of his own experience as an immigrant (his family came to this country from Scotland, and Byrne has dual citizenship). He also talks about the political divide in the U. S., but he uses it as a means of encouraging everyone to vote. To this end, you'll find members of the nonpartisan HeadCount running a voter registration drive in the lobby.

Byrne is not the world's greatest singer and often relies on his signature talk-singing style when performing solo. But collectively with the 11 members of the band, the sound is beautiful, whether on one of the quieter numbers or going full out with "Burning Down the House" (to which we are invited to get up and dance), or their heart-pounding rendition of Janelle Monáe's fiery protest song "Hell You Talmabout." Interestingly, Byrne's super hit from his Talking Heads days, "Once In A Lifetime," is buried somewhere in the middle of the program, an obligatory "been there, done that" moment that quickly passes.

With the assistance of the show's "production consultant" Alex Timbers, who previously worked with Byrne as director of Here Lies Love, the evening has been designed to feel personal and intimate while playing to a Broadway house of just under 1,000 seats. To begin with, there is a very un-rock concert-like vibe. There are no amps or other complicated electronic equipment in use and none of the distancing that is part of the package when you attend a stadium concert and need binoculars to catch a glimpse of the performers and noise-canceling headphones to protect your hearing. Never mind attempting to catch the lyrics.

But listening to the words is important here, and sound designer Pete Keppler has done a good job of making sure we can hear them. Byrne's lyric writing tends to embrace the unpredictable and quirky, like the catchy "Toe Jam" or his adaptation of a poem by Dadaist Hugo Ball. But beyond the songs themselves, the "sound" of the entire show is largely produced by the remarkable percussion-heavy (not overly loud, just dominant) band.

Choreographer Annie-B Parson has the musicians moving in various formations like a marching band, all of them barefoot and dressed, like Byrne, in gray business suits. Anyone who is not playing an instrument is called upon to perform rhythmic herky-jerky disco dance moves. Byrne himself does the dance steps as if he were a novice in a Zumba fitness class, and it totally cracked me up to hear him sing, as if by way of explanation, "I dance like this because it feels so damn good. If I could dance better, you know that I would." But if you want to see real dancing, keep your eye on Tendayi Kuumba and Chris Giarmo (you'll know who I mean, even if you don't know them by name), who turn those dorky moves into an art form.

What amazes most, however, is that Byrne's mix of styles, from rock to Afro-pop to Zydeco to marching band drum lines, all drawn from a lengthy career as well as from the newer pieces, retains a freshness and the world view of a cockeyed optimist. May he continue to invent and explore and entertain for many years to come.