“We’re on a road to nowhere,” David Byrne sings in the final encore of his Broadway concert, “American Utopia,” at the Hudson Theatre. Can we get an encore of that encore, please?
While the thrumming, melodic Talking Heads song in question dates back more than three decades, the sentiment expressed in its title and chorus has never felt more pertinent. With the country sliding ever more inexorably into political chaos and social dysfunction, we do seem to be bumping along toward some unknown and possibly unhappy destination.
Utopia? Perhaps dystopia would be a better description of the American present. In a possible nod to this apparent paradox, the word “utopia” appears upside-down and backwards in the logo of the show, and of the 2018 solo album from which it takes its title. But Byrne, the longtime frontman for the seminal art-rock band Talking Heads, has not come to Broadway to foretell disaster. His nerdy-professor demeanor has always been blended with a fundamentally sunny, if quirky, optimism, and “American Utopia” is mostly driven by uptempo, rhythm-rich songs that are primed to put the audience in a forgiving, if not forgetting, mood.
Although Professor Byrne does give a tidy lecture or two during the course of the show — surely this is the only rock concert you are likely to attend at which the artist Kurt Schwitters and the writer James Baldwin are evoked, and voter-registration materials are available in the lobby — “American Utopia” mostly provides pure, pleasurable escapism, an evening of rousingly performed music that lifts us up and away from the here and now, only to strategically and pointedly drop us back into our fraught American reality on a couple of sobering occasions.
Those expecting anything along the lines of “Here Lies Love,” Byrne’s previous major theatrical foray, an original musical about the fortunes of the Philippines during the regime of Ferdinand Marcos, should be made aware that his new show shares little with that production except Alex Timbers, the director of “Here Lies Love,” who is designated the “production consultant” on this one.
But even Timbers, who tends toward maximalism if not gaudy excess (see his concurrent Broadway production, “Moulin Rouge!”), here puts on a straitjacket of sorts, allowing Byrne and the 11 musicians and vocalists to strut their stuff at center stage without any excessive fuss or flourishes.
And strut they do: The choreography and musical staging, by Annie-B Parson, keeps the musicians onstage for most of the show’s duration, performing gently regimented movement that amusingly turns them into a small, well-drilled version of that classic symbol of American small-town life, the marching band – minus the flashy braided suits. (And for that matter, minus shoes.) They carry their instruments, marching-band style, either in their hands or with the assistance of straps around their necks, allowing more or less complete freedom of movement, which gives the show a dynamism that rock concerts generally lack.
Byrne and his fellow performers all wear simple grey suits and grey shirts — there isn’t even a costume designer listed — and the stage is largely bare, surrounded merely by curtains of shimmering silver beads reminiscent of the gold ones that hang in the Philip Johnson-designed David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. The only color in the show — setting aside the music, of course — is provided by a few hot flashes of rich lighting by Rob Sinclair.
Although he has been recording and performing since the 1970s, Byrne’s voice is in wonderful shape; in fact it has ripened into a more nuanced instrument since the days when he was often just barking in an almost emotion-less tenor, with the newest songs (like the opening “Here”) often bringing out the widest variety of tonal colors. But he raises the volume at certain points, particularly on “Hell You Talmbout,” the only non-Byrne song included, a protest song by Janelle Monáe that is performed with an audience-galvanizing intensity. It decries the killings of black Americans by police over the past years, invoking the victims’ names — sadly too many to list here — as angry incantations.
The set list does not sketch out any sort of theme that I could discern. Several songs are from the Byrne’s recent album, including the trance-y “I Dance Like This” and, perhaps the best of the lot, the memorable “Bullet,” which describes the trajectory of, yes, a bullet shot into a human body and the damage it does to both body and soul. As is often the case with Byrne’s work, both as an individual and as part of Talking Heads, the melodies are disarmingly simple, with often catchy choruses, and the lyrics are a funky storehouse of weird, inscrutable imagery. (What’s that about a cockroach eating the “Mona Lisa”? “The mind is a soft-boiled potato”?)
The new songs are blended with a brimming handful of the Talking Heads’ best-loved songs, which naturally arouse the most excitement from the audience. Yes, you will hear “Once in a Lifetime,” perhaps the band’s biggest hit, whose unforgettable music video was a prime staple of the early years of MTV. In addition to “Road to Nowhere,” the songs from the Talking Heads back catalog include the jubilantly frenzied “Burning Down the House,” “Born Under Punches,” the ever-lovely “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” and, a little more surprisingly, the lesser-known “I Zimbra,” from the relatively early album “Fear of Music,” a composition from Byrne and Brian Eno that was inspired by (I’m not quite sure how) the dada artist Schwitters. Who knew?
That song is deeply influenced by African music, and that influence is on display in the musical arrangements throughout “American Utopia.” Among the nine musicians in the show, a full six are percussionists, lending the music overall an ambience that evokes African and other cultures whose music draws powerfully on the primal appeal of strong rhythm. A little more variety would not come amiss, in my view, but it’s nevertheless energizing to hear such a variety of percussion instruments blending together to provide a sense of musical propulsion.
Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba, meanwhile, are the only cast members who do not play instruments, providing instead supporting vocals, and performing the more substantial dancing, although Parson’s choreography throughout is fairly austere, relying on jutting or sweeping arm movements and swirling stage patterns rather than intricate sequences of steps.
Byrne himself does a fair amount of dancing, since he only straps on a guitar for a few songs, leaving him free to move as freely as the others. Certainly at 67 he is not as funkily animated as he was in “Stop Making Sense,” the Jonathan Demme movie from 1984 that remains one of the best concert films ever made. But he remains remarkably trim and agile, and, natural gangliness aside, moves with much the same easy fluidity as the younger performers who support him.
Aside from the protest song, and a mildly delivered exhortation to get out and vote, “American Utopia” mostly spreads a more sustained warmth through the driving force of its rhythmic music. And while that final song, “Road to Nowhere,” can be viewed from one perspective as a nod to the country’s uncertain future, the tone shifts into hopefulness about halfway through. As the rhythm picks up Byrne invites us to join him on a trip to “a city in my mind” that may be far away, but is “growing day by day,” a place where “it’s all right.” That, at least, is a comforting thought to bring home, a glimpse of an American utopia waiting around some distant curve.
“American Utopia” opened at the Hudson Theatre on Sun., Oct. 20, 2019.
Creative: Musical Director: Karl Mansfield and Mauro Refosco; Choreography and Musical Staging by Annie-B Parson; Production Consultant: Alex Timbers; Lighting Design by Rob Sinclair; Sound Design by Pete Keppler.
Producers: Kristin Caskey, Mike Isaacson, Patrick Catullo, Todomundo, Hal Luftig,Jonathan Reinis, Shira Friedman, Annapurna Theatre, Elizabeth Armstrong, Thomas Laub,Steve Rosenthal, Erica Lynn Schwartz & Matt Picheny, Steve Traxler, Len Blavatnik,Nonesuch Records, Warner/Chappell Music and Ambassador Theatre Group Productions.
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.