Photo credit: David Byrne’s American Utopia (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

'David Byrne's American Utopia' review - an unmissable encore run sparks joy

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

Pricking up your ears  and your peepers  in a state of streaming delight goes with the territory at American Utopia, David Byrne's dazzling concert production back on Broadway for an encore joy jolt.

The show returns with triumphant signs of its success, including a shiny special Tony Award for its four-month sold-out run that wrapped in February 2020. There's also a filmed live-capture performance directed by Spike Lee, who was in the audience (doing research, perhaps?) when I sat rapt at the production for the first time in October 2019.

Two years down the road, the world has changed in dramatic ways. American Utopia, based on the former Talking Head frontman's 2018 album and tour of the same name, remains essentially unchanged. 

But, as it's said, it's all in the timing. Byrne acknowledges that the script, though the same as before, may land a bit differently now than in the pre-pandemic "old world." Case in point: his exuberant welcome to the audience in the opening moments. 

"Thank you for coming ... Thank you for leaving your homes," he says. The bit got giggles before, and still sparks laughs, but for different reasons. After all, masked theatergoers leaving home still grapple with an ongoing global health crisis that plunged them into lockdown. 

Unrestricted movement, or the opposite of lockdown, underpins this theatrical experience. "We don't have any cable or wires attached to us in these shows, attaching to gear or equipment or any of those kinds of things," Byrne says. "We're completely untethered ... It's very liberating."  

And completely captivating. 

"Here" gets the show up and running. Unspooling over 100 unbroken minutes the set list covers new and old songs and fan favorites and lesser-known music from Byrne's career. Listen up for "Every Day Is a Miracle," "Slippery People," "Once in a Lifetime," and "Burning Down the House." A rendition of Janelle Monae's protest song "Hell You Talmbout," along with brief allusions to local elections, lends a bit of political heft.

The soundscape is gorgeous, lyrics landing with bell-like clarity  even "I Zimbra"'s "bim blassa galassasa zimbrabim," drawn from a nonsense poem. Of course, you expect a concert staging to be an earful. This one is, and then some. You can feel the insistent throbbing drumbeats in a way that only emanates from a live performance.

The fact that the show is visually thrilling is all the more remarkable considering its stripped-back, monochromatic production design. The stage is naked, just like the feet of the shoeless cast uniformly dressed in grey suits. Countless grey-silver dangling chains create walls on three sides of the stage.

Grey matter figures into the show's loose narrative, too. Early on Byrne strikes a Hamlet-y pose, holding a prop brain and pondering why babies "have hundreds of millions more neural connections than we do as adults." 

Where do those connections go? He eventually reveals his theory, if not his hope. Perhaps they "somehow get kind of reestablished, only now instead of being in our heads," he says, "they're between us and other people."

Byrne's essential onstage connections are 11 other ace performers who handle vocals, drums, strings, keyboard and movement so polished, tight and precise it could make a marching band or a rhythmic gymnastics squad each swoon. 

The choreography and musical staging are by Annie-B Parson. Moulin Rouge! The Musical Tony winner Alex Timbers, who knows his way around moving parts and kinetic spectacle, is a production consultant.

In a happy and hummable final thought, this Broadway trip concludes with "Road to Nowhere." Byrne and company offer a journey that's not to be missed. 

American Utopia is playing the St. James Theatre. Get American Utopia tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: David Byrne's American Utopia (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

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