By Donna Herman
Wow! There isn’t a better reason to shake off the pandemic fog of fear and get out of the house than “David Byrne’s American Utopia.” It will get you moving. In your seat, out of your seat, but not in the aisles. The fire department does not allow that.
It’s not a musical, but it’s almost all music. It’s not your typical rock concert, although you’ll hear plenty of your favorite Talking Heads and David Byrne’s songs. And it’s certainly not an opera. Too much talking and not enough theatrical excess. But it’s very theatrical. Although it’s definitely not a play in the typical sense. There are no characters or story, per se.
So, what is “David Byrne’s American Utopia” anyway? Physically, it’s David Byrne and a marching band with a couple of dancers on a stage with a curtain made of hundreds of strands of metal chain ringing the sides and back. It is as untethered from anything you have ever seen on Broadway as the performers are from wires and mic stands and furniture and sets. Everybody dances – musicians included, the dancers are the backup singers, and at one point or another everybody sings too.
It is mesmerizing, joyous, remarkable and a glimpse into a very unusual mind. It is a musical journey into David Byrne’s thought processes as he tries to figure out what’s important in life and how it could be better for us all. His central idea is that, in the final analysis, we are all looking for and most interested in, human connection. His pathway is the brain and neural connections, with his song “Here.” He uses that to explore how a child might come to understand the world and what is important.
What makes “David Byrne’s American Utopia” so unusual, aside from the unconventional empty stage and lack of extra gear we’re used to seeing at musical concerts, is the brilliant choreography by Annie-B Parson. Byrne and Parson are long time collaborators, most notably on the multi-award winning “Here Lies Love,” so it is no wonder that their work meshes so well. There is an exuberance, a child-like joy, in the simple, but effective movement that all the performers engage in. However, Ms. Parson uses the two dancers/vocalists, Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba in sophisticated choreography that keeps your eyes moving around the stage. At times, their choreography underscores the songs, and sometimes it provides a counterpoint. Unusually, she allows the dancers free reign to use facial expressions which is both startling and engaging.
The international band that Mr. Byrne has pulled together is, well, world class. There are six percussionists and a keyboard player who all wear state-of-the-art harnesses that allow them to hold their instruments and play them while moving freely and dancing around the stage. As well as a bassist, a guitarist, and Mr. Byrne himself who plays the guitar half the time. And who dances as well and gamely as the rest of the performers. Spoiler alert: by the time “Burning Down the House” is played, the only people in the audience not on their feet are those who aren’t able to be.
You don’t want to miss “David Byrne’s American Utopia”. It’s perfectly safe since all audience members have to show their vaccination cards as well as ID proving that they are who they say they are. In addition, you must wear a mask and remain masked during the show. All staff is masked as well. It’s a strictly limited engagement at the St. James Theatre through March 6, 2022.
“David Byrne’s American Utopia” Production Consultant, Alex Timbers; Choreography and Musical Staging by Annie-B Parson
WITH: David Byrne (Guitar); Jacqueline Acevedo (Percussionist); Gustavo Di Dalva (Percussionist); Daniel Freedman (Percussionist); Chris Giarmo (Vocals/Dance); Tim Keiper (Percussionist); Tendayi Kuumba (Vocals/Dance); Karl Mansfield (Music Direction/Keyboard); Mauro Refosco (Music Direction/Percussionist); Stephane San Juan (Percussionist); Angie Swan (Guitar); Bobby Wooten III (Bass); Renee Albulario (Standby); Alena Ciera (Standby); Chris Eddleton (Standby); Evan Frierson (Standby); Abe Nouri (Standby)))); Natalie Tenenbaum (Standby).
Lighting Design by Rob Sinclair; Sound Design by Pete Keppler; Associate Choreographer, Elizabeth Dement; Technical Supervision by Mark Edwards; Hudson Theatrical Associates, Technical Supervisor; Production Supervisor, Gregory T. Livoti; Julie DeVore, Production Stage Manager; Lauren Cavanagh, Stage Manager; Press Rep, Boneau/ryan-Brown; Foresight Theatrical, General Management. Presented by Kristin Caskey, Mike Isaacson, Patrick Catullo, Todomundo, Hal Luftig, Jonathan Reinis, Shira Friedman, Annapurna Theatre, Elizabeth Armstrong, Thomas Laub, Steven Rosenthal, Erica Lynn Schwartz & Matt Pucheny, Steve Traxler, Len Blavatnik, Nonesuch Records, Warner Chappell Music, Ambassador Theatre Group Productions.
Performances at The St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street. Running Time: 100 minutes without intermission. Playing through March 6, 2022. For tickets visit: seatgeek.