theater review

There Is a Party, Everyone Is There: David Byrne’s American Utopia on Broadway

This is not my beautiful house! This is the Hudson Theatre. Photo: Matthew Murphy

David Byrne is sitting at a table. He’s singing “Here,” the song he wrote with Daniel Lopatin for his album American Utopia, and holding a pink plastic brain. As he sings, he carefully indicates each part.

Here is a region — of abundant detail
Here is a region — that is seldom used
Here is a section — that continues living
Even when the other sections are removed

The white-haired Byrne is wearing a pale gray suit (which fits; this is not Big Suit Byrne), and his bare feet are tapping a little bit under the table. Around him, framing the otherwise empty stage, is a rectangle of lighting truss. It rises slowly as he sings, unfurling lines of chain, until the space has three tall walls made of shimmering silver strands. It’s rain in reverse.

American Utopia, a concert so beautifully and completely choreographed that it’s also a dance piece, has come to Broadway. (The tour, staged by Annie-B Parson, has been on the road for more than a year; Alex Timbers is also credited as production consultant, and has apparently lent a hand to “theatricalize” it, whatever that means.) To give Byrne his theatrical due, he does speak to the audience from time to time: He hesitantly mentions a few scripted thoughts about watching people — so much more interesting than watching a sunset or a bag of potato chips, he notes — and he more emphatically discusses thinking. Babies, he reminds us, have millions more neural connections than adults do: Growing up is a neurological casting-off. And so what does all that elimination get us?

The answer comes frolicking through the curtain-chains in the form of two dancer-vocalists — Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba — also in gray suits, also barefoot. The Byrne-self has always been one that seemed to tread rather lightly on the earth, first in Talking Heads and their ironic, iconic artpop experiments, then in his long and increasingly earnest solo career. So much of what he does has a buoyant, balancing, upward-tending quality: he loves and writes about bicycles, for instance, and he started an online magazine called Reasons to Be Cheerful, which covers things like humane malaria eradication. But the tall man himself is pretty standard-issue in the physical-grace department. So as he dances, he also has fleet-footed avatars, Giarmo and Kuumba, who smile impishly as they glide and skip across the stage.

Here too many sounds for your brain to comprehend
Here the sound gets organized — into things that make some sense
Here is something we call elucidation
Is it the truth? Or merely a description?

In a way that rather recalls Jonathan Demme’s film Stop Making Sense, the concert grows by accretion: The trio expands as band members emerge through the wall, the group growing and growing until there are twelve Utopians bouncing around the space. The guitarist Angie Swan and bassist Bobby Wooten III are working wirelessly; the many, many percussionists wear their drums on marching-band rigs, so that they can dance as they play. Everyone is completely mobile; everyone is barefoot; everyone is in those gray suits. Occasionally someone passes a guitar through the chains, and Byrne shrugs into it, but more often he is unencumbered: He is the stone around which this little sand garden is being raked. He stands staring into the flickering wings during “I Should Watch TV” (written with St. Vincent); the band starts in a wedge on the opposite side of the stage, then sneaks up on him. Several times the company freezes or goes silent. During one song, a ghostlight (a bulb on a stand) rolls away from him as he calls to it.

They play songs from the album like “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” co-written by Brian Eno, and one of many Byrne-mentions of houses. They clearly preoccupy him. Is a house a home? Is this, in fact, your beautiful house? There is a ribbon of thought through several decades-worth of lyrics that you can follow, something having to do with safety and containment, and the realization that our lives fill up buildings as water fills up a vessel. Taken together, they also seem to recommend a mode of being, one that’s a little bit metaphysically reserved—but still intent on action in this world. Byrne also plays songs from his Talking Heads days, including “Once in a Lifetime” and a riotous version of “Burning Down the House.” (These tend to make people lose their minds.) And with the entire group lined up at the front of the stage, pounding drums and demanding the audience’s participation, they cover Janelle Monáe’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout.” It’s a show with many highlights—this one blazes like phosphorus.

Freddie Gray! Freddie Gray!
Say his name! Say his name!

Byrne’s voice is the same as it ever was; it still has that straining tenor, the sound of something not built for singing that gets up the hill anyway. This is an everyday voice, almost a speaking voice, and yet it makes such beautiful music. This effortful quality makes him a good match for choreographer and musical stager Annie-B Parson, whose roots are in the postmodern Judson Dance Theater movement. Her vocabulary includes tiptoeing, pointing, running, and a gesture that looks like the “it has three syllables” move in charades. What gives the movements complexity is their arrangement. Even when all dozen performers are onstage, she keeps their groupings strange and surprising, in little clumps like gossiping teenagers or standing off center along the curtain line, like opera singers taking a bow. When the group does finally do something in unison, it strikes like lightning: there’s one physically thrilling sequence devised with lighting designer Rob Sinclair in which the band throws up their arms again and again as the lights flash.

The “American” part of American Utopia starts long before the music does. As you walk in, staff members offer to help you to register to vote. Byrne stops the show to talk about registration; later he introduces the band and emphasizes how free movement and immigration (he himself was born in Scotland) has made their work possible. The “Utopia” part is harder to figure out. Despite the total, buoyant joy that suffuses the performers (Gustavo Di Dalva’s throwing his head back for his drum solo; Angie Swan’s laughing as she plays), the attitude towards America is cautious, if not stern. The word does come from the Greek for “not” and “place,” so maybe the shimmering gray space is limbo? The band might be the sparking synapses in a cerebellum, or they could be Shades, dancing on the plain of Asphodel. Whatever they are, Byrne’s emphasis is on all of our swift ephemerality. At the end of the show, the truss begins rising again, and the walls disappear into the dark. Everyone was dancing! There was a room there! And then everything is gone, so quickly.

I’m pointing and describing
And I can be your guide
The skin is just a roadmap
The view is very nice
Imagine looking at a picture
Imagine driving in a car
Imagine rolling down the window
Imagine opening the door…

American Utopia is at the Hudson Theatre through January 19.

*A version of this article appears in the October 28, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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