“Thank you for leaving your homes.”
David Byrne mostly sings during his 100-minute Broadway show, American Utopia, but when he speaks, he cuts straight to it. Sure, we could have watched Byrne’s concert, now streaming on HBO, from our homes, but the thing about utopias, the Talking Heads founder seems to be suggesting, is that they are better dreamed, built, and experienced together.
Now at the St. James Theatre, American Utopia is an infectious showcase of Byrne’s decades-long career. It’s a rare treat to see a performer of Byrne’s age get to lead and command a Broadway show—at almost 70, he exudes a youthful, idealistic charm; takes lead vocals on every song; and buzzes around the theater like a bee on the first day of spring. Of course, Broadway is occasionally blessed with titanic performances from older performers—Glenda Jackson in King Lear and Jane Alexander in Grand Horizons are two recent examples. Triumphant as those performances were, what David Byrne and his American Utopia—with choreography and musical staging by Annie-B Parson—is offering is more unique, at least on Broadway: a near-nonstop concert that’s also an invitation.
In watching American Utopia’s exuberant execution and enjoyment of its own music, I couldn’t help but think of other Broadway shows—jukebox musicals—where beloved, Grammy-winning songs are similarly the main draw. Just this month I saw Tina: The Tina Turner Musical; Adrienne Warren’s Tony-winning turn as the Queen of Rock ‘n Roll is a tidal wave, but what jukebox musicals often stifle, ironically, is the music itself. In Tina, and other biomusicals that have mostly plagued instead of electrified Broadway, songs are clipped just as they might start to build, gaining steam just as they have to cut out to make room for the next Billboard-topping tune. Because of this rushed pacing, I found myself caring less about Tina’s emotional journey—and life.
American Utopia, meanwhile, wholeheartedly knows it’s a concert. The show commits itself to this medium, which means the songs are actually given a chance to breathe, accelerate, and uplift. And lift they do; the night I saw the show, audiences stood to their feet almost every other number and swayed along to Byrne’s classic songs. Sure, this is indeed a concert, but nonetheless, it is also the most animated I’ve ever seen white people in a Broadway house.
Parson’s simple choreography certainly helps in enticing audiences to groove along. Her musical staging is a lovely and natural extension of Byrne’s feel-good and world beat music. A pair of dancers (Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba) executes the flicky, unpretentious choreography while the rest of the band—a multinational and immensely talented tensome of guitarists, percussionists, and a keyboardist—bops along. The musicians move as a unit both cohesive and shaggy; this dichotomy is exemplified in their costuming, where performers are both barefoot and clad in silvery suits. Parson moves the dozen performers about deftly, making dynamic use of the bare stage, and Rob Sinclair’s lighting jives with the gentler tone of Byrne’s music, never trying to dazzle or overstimulate.
Periodically, between singing hit songs such as “This Must Be the Place” and “Once in a Lifetime,” Byrne addresses the audience, sharing anecdotes and inspirations that have led him to create the more edenic state imagined in his show’s title. Towards the end of American Utopia, he borrows and sings a song by Janelle Monáe, “Hell You Talmbout,” a charged requiem for Black lives lost due to white supremacy. In the lead-up to that number, Byrne speaks about the grown sense of empowerment he’s felt throughout our country’s racial and cultural reckoning, and how he’s activated that potential into efforts like voter registration.
All of this is done in an unforced manner that still, because of Byrne’s allure and gravitas, sparks urgency. In under two hours, Byrne shares a sliver of his own dreamed utopia, and how it might come to be. Through that generosity, he also invites us to seek and create our own.