David Byrne allows us to build our own “American utopia”

Choreography and musical direction “American Utopia” by David Byrne by
Annie-B Parson + Production Consultant Alex Timbers The once in a lifetime theatrical event at St. James on Broadway
Theater (246 West 44th Street) Pictured (left to right): Chris Giarmo, David Byrne and Tendayi Kuumba Matthieu Murphy © 2019

“Thank you for leaving your homes. “

David Byrne mainly sings during his 100 Minute Broadway show, American Utopia, but when he speaks he gets straight to the point. Sure, we could have watched Byrne’s concert, now airing on HBO, from our homes, but the thing with utopias, the Talking Heads founder seems to suggest, is that they’re best dreamed of, built, and lived together. .

Today at the St. James Theater, “American Utopia” is a contagious showcase of Byrne’s decades-long career. It’s a rare pleasure to see an artist of Byrne’s age direct and commission a Broadway show – at almost 70, he exudes a young, idealistic charm; takes the lead voice on each song; and buzzes around the theater like a bee on the first day of spring. Of course, Broadway is sometimes blessed with titanic performances by older artists – Glenda Jackson in King Lear and Jane Alexander in Great Horizons are two recent examples. As triumphant as these performances were, what David Byrne and his American Utopia—With choreography and musical staging by Annie-B Parson — an offer is more unique, at least on Broadway: an almost uninterrupted concert that is also an invitation.

Looking at American Utopiathe exuberant performance of and enjoyment of his own music, I couldn’t help but think of other Broadway shows – from musicals to jukebox – where the beloved Grammy-winning songs are also the main attraction. Just this month I saw Tina: The Tina Turner Musical; Adrienne Warren’s winning Tony ride as the queen of rock ‘n roll is a tidal wave, but what jukebox musicals often, ironically, suffocate is the music itself. In Tina, and other biomusicals that mostly tormented instead of electrified Broadway, the songs cut when they could start to build, gaining momentum when they need to be cut to make room for the next one. Billboard piece. Because of this rushed pace, I found myself worrying less about Tina’s emotional journey and her life.

American Utopia, during this time, knows wholeheartedly it’s a concert. The show engages on this medium, which means that the songs actually have a chance to breathe, speed up, and uplift. And they do; the night I saw the show, the audience got up to almost every other number and rocked to classic Byrne songs. Of course, this is indeed a concert, but nonetheless, it is also the liveliest white man I have ever seen in a Broadway house.

Parson’s straightforward choreography certainly helps keep the audience going. Its musical staging is a charming and natural extension of the wellness and rhythm music of Byrne’s world. A pair of dancers (Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba) perform the quick and unpretentious choreography as the rest of the group – ten guitarists, percussionists and a multinational and immensely talented keyboardist – step forward. The musicians move as a unit that is both cohesive and unkempt; this dichotomy is exemplified in their costumes, where the performers are both barefoot and dressed in silver costumes. Parson skillfully shifts the dozen performers, making dynamic use of the bare stage, and Rob Sinclair’s lighting vibrates with the softer tone of Byrne’s music, never trying to dazzle or over-stimulate.

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 led him to create the more Edenic state. imagined in the title of his show. Towards the end of American Utopia, he borrows and sings a song by Janelle Monáe, “Hell Talmbout,”A loaded requiem for black lives lost to white supremacy. From the perspective of this number, Byrne talks about the growing sense of empowerment he has felt throughout the racial and cultural calculation of our country, and how he has activated that potential in efforts such as enrollment. voters.

This is all done in an unforced way which, due to Byrne’s allure and gravity, always causes urgency. In less than two hours, Byrne shares a fragment of his own dreamed utopia, and how it could come true. Through this generosity, he also invites us to seek and create our own.

David Byrne shows us his - and invites us to build ours -