Review of David Byrne's American Utopia on Broadway

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    Date:
    October 21, 2019
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    Donald J Trump famously invoked the prospect of "American carnage" in his inauguration speech in 2017, but rock musician (and occasional theatrical composer) David Byrne's reply, in his 7th solo studio album, was to focus on more positive emotions, with the title American Utopia.

    Now the Scottish-born New Wave pop star, who co-founded the celebrated group Talking Heads back in 1975, has brought a vivid live touring stage version of that album, with added greatest hits, to America's theatrical utopia, namely Broadway, and it feels right at home at this time and place in both history and popular culture.

    Where Broadway once was a prime source for the pop music of its day, pop has now long become a valuable resource for material to fuel new Broadway musicals from the spectacular mash-ups of past pop hits in Moulin Rouge! The Musical and such pop biographical musicals as Ain't Too Proud (The Temptations) and Tina (Tina Turner). Popstars themselves now do regular residencies on Broadway, too, with Bruce Springsteen performing a record-breaking run of 236 shows at the Walter Kerr Theatre, which seats less than 1000 people, in 2017 and 2018 that grossed some $147m.

    Other pop and rock writers have turned albums into live stage shows that they don't necessarily appear in, including Green Day (American Idiot), Anaïs Mitchell (the current Tony winning hit Hadestown) and Alanis Morissette (Jagged Little Pill, opening at the Broadhurst Theatre in November).

    While Green Day frontman Billy Joe Armstrong has appeared in American Idiot (and Sting, too, has done a stint in his original musical The Last Ship on Broadway), usually the performing honours go to others. So the big pleasure of David Byrne's American Utopia is to find him front and centre himself, joined by an ensemble of eleven other musicians and singer/dancers, for a stunning concert that puts theatricality at its core.

    So it properly belongs here on Broadway at the Hudson Theatre, with Alex Timbers (the director of Moulin Rouge!) credited as production consultant and helping to shape the show into something that feels equal parts performance art, dance musical and live gig.

    There's nothing static about the show, with choreographer Annie-B Parson keeping Bryne and the ensemble in constant motion across the stage, which is enclosed in a frame of beaded metallic curtains.

    But while it is rigorously and artfully staged, with stunning lighting by Rob Sinclair, there are also moments of informality, too, when Byrne addresses the audience directly on issues like climate change, and the importance of registering to vote (and it's not just an empty appeal: there are people in the foyer to help the audience do so).

    Mostly, though, this show is about the music, and besides the big hits that Byrne is best known for -- like "Burning Down the House" and "Once in a Lifetime," and (as an encore) "Road to Nowhere" -- we also get powerful entries like Janelle Monáe's protest song "Hell You Talmbout," alongside the newer material from the title album. Broadway has long been a showcase for the best in popular theatre, but it has also become a valuable experimental space for challenging different expectations of what it can be -- and American Utopia offers dazzling new possibilities.

    Bryne's two original musicals -- Here Lies Love (co-written with Fatboy Slim) and Joan of Arc: Into the Fire (both presented at the Public Theater) -- never got to Broadway, but his own arrival there is a triumph.

    (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

    "In David Byrne’s American Utopia — an expansive, dazzlingly staged concert — he emerges as an avuncular, off-center shepherd to flocks of fans still groping to find their way. Like him, or the version of himself he presents here, they’re heading into the twilight, wondering why the hell they haven’t grown up yet."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "Byrne surrounds himself with 11 accomplished musicians, six on percussion, and all dressed in identical gray suits and barefoot. And together they move about a stage surrounded on three sides by curtains of metal chains, creating a series of stage tableaux. Parson’s choreography is a crafty mix of low-impact rhythmic movement and marching band, an effect amplified by the fact that the musicians all tote their own instruments as they move about the stage. They sound terrific, which is another smart move because the 67-year-old Byrne, never the strongest vocalist, can warble a bit on sustained notes."
    Thom Geier for The Wrap

    "In the first of several playful ruminations that punctuate his exhilarating theatrical concert, American Utopia, David Byrne holds up a model of the human brain and ponders how the hundreds of millions of neuro connections in a baby's gray matter get whittled down as we mature into adulthood, discarding the unnecessary and conserving only those needed to define who we are and how we perceive the world. This follows the section-by-section cerebral breakdown of the opening song, "Here." That combined introduction serves as an implicit challenge to the audience — to rewire our brains, rendering them more elastic, capable of change and of receiving the multifarious signals of this astonishing show on different levels."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

    "While “American Utopia” is essentially the same production that Bryrne toured around the world for much of last year, it is far more suited to a Broadway theater than, say, a festival — in the intimate, seated confines of the Hudson, the staging, sound, colors and sense of movement have no distractions. But the show is hardly sedate: Before launching into “Burning Down the House,” Byrne encouraged the audience to dance (while staying out of the aisles, in deference to the fire marshal)."
    Jem Aswad for Variety