David Byrne's American Utopia Is a Musical Joy Machine on Broadway
It's impossible to leave David Byrne's American Utopia without a big smile on your face. This theatrical concert from the Talking Heads front man is presently radiating joy from the stage of the Hudson Theatre, where it has instantly become the most unique musical experience on Broadway.
Byrne has long straddled the divide between popular music and theater, a schism that occurred with the advent of rock and roll. Byrne's groundbreaking career holds out the tantalizing potential of reconciliation: Not only is he one of the more theatrical acts in music; he is also the composer of the wildly successful Imelda Marcos musical Here Lies Love (as well as the less-loved Joan of Arc: Into the Fire). Byrne is an artist unbound by genre and form, a quality that makes his work incredibly exciting.
American Utopia takes its name from Byrne's 2018 studio album, but this is not a musical adaptation of that album à la Green Day's American Idiot. Instead, it is a concert of some of Byrne's greatest songs, performed by the man himself and 11 of the best musicians in the world. The audience jumps to its feet to dance along to well-known numbers like "Burning Down the House" and "Road to Nowhere." Newer songs like "I Dance Like This" (which Byrne performs with hilariously stiff moves) and "Here" also grab us by the collar. The latter is the show's opener: It begins with Byrne seated alone gesturing to a model of the brain as a three-sided curtain made of thousands of beads slowly rises around the edge of the stage. The effect is stunning, and hooks us into a show that keeps us rapt.
American Utopia is remarkably visual considering that the bead curtain constitutes the most significant set piece. Annie-B Parson fills the empty stage with her angular, oddly appealing choreography. Dancers Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba make these movements seem natural and simple (although their sweat-soaked costumes by the end of the show betray that they are nothing of the sort). Giarmo, in particular, is a delight to watch, his jubilant grin sheltering under a pointed red mustache.
The stage teems with charismatic performers: Angie Swan's guitar solos are consistently thrilling. I loved seeing her march in place next to jolly, smiling bassist Bobby Wooten III. Gustavo Di Dalva plays the talking drum with amazing dexterity and palpable glee. Tim Keiper always seems to be playing three different instruments, and his dancing during "Toe Jam Mix" is a wonder to behold.
Everyone seems to be moving at all times, and Parson shapes their raw dynamism into a visual feast. I particularly enjoyed the breakout movement solos in "Born Under Punches" and the controlled chaos of "Blind," in which the stage comes to resemble the deck of a tempest-tossed ship, an effect created entirely through dance.
There are at least six percussionists, and sometimes more (everyone is a drummer during a powerful rendition of Janelle Monáe's "Hell You Talmbout," the most overtly political song of the evening and the only non-Byrne number). An astounding array of international percussion instruments appear in American Utopia, which is especially impressive considering there are no drum sets encamped anywhere onstage. These musical mollusks carry their kits around with them in smartly engineered contraptions they wear over their uniform gray suits (from Martin Greenfield Clothiers). It's like watching the coolest marching band in the whole world.
Part of the charm of this show (or any Talking Heads concert) is the discrepancy between Byrne's mild-mannered, slightly stilted delivery when he is speaking to the audience, and his magnetic stage presence when he is singing. He's like an alien who has spent light-years voyaging across the universe, internalizing the entirety of Earth's music.
If you're not already a David Byrne fan, you will be after American Utopia. It's 100 minutes of pure bliss.