The following is one of two reviews of the same show.
Ian Alterman's review of the show in 2022 was preceded by Dusty Wright's original review from 2020.
American Utopia - March 9th, 2022
A touch more than two years ago (see review below), Dusty did a review of this show just before it closed due to the pandemic. The show re-opened recently at the St. James Theater for an abbreviated run, and will close, permanently, on April 3rd. I went to see the show on March 9th -- my first entertainment venture out of my apartment since the pandemic began.
Dusty was effusive about the show, and it is easy to see why. There has simply never been anything quite like this show in any theater anywhere. Part musical, part narrative play, part rock concert, part educational drama, and a thoroughly and deeply philosophical work of art, it focuses on the concept of "connections" (human, technological, and other). Mr. Byrne uses narrative and song (some Talking Heads songs, and some that were written specifically for the show) to delve into these connections in almost every way imaginable. He touches on the good, the bad and the ugly in art, media, race, and psychology (primarily loneliness and confusion). For a fun night at the theater (which it is), it is pretty heady stuff.
What makes this show most extraordinary is the staging. The entire "cast" of 12 are the actual musicians (there is no pit, no orchestra, no recorded music) -- and with no wires of any kind (all vocals and instruments are wireless) the cast (all barefoot) is free to move around the stage. And do they ever move around the stage! The choreography is continual -- simple but mesmerizing -- and the interplay among the cast (including Mr. Byrne) is disciplined but fun. There were a couple of moments when cast members, moving quickly, came very near to crashing into each other or tripping each other. Mr. Byrne and his team simply made fun out of those moments -- smiling, laughing, and giving quick nods -- and the audience laughed with them.
I was sitting in the center mezzanine, aisle seat, second row -- which the woman at the box office assured me was the best seat in the house. And she was right. Because even when I saw Spike Lee's film of the show, I could tell that the audience in the orchestra were missing a lot of what was happening vis-à-vis staging, movement, lighting, and effects, all of which are relatively simple, but utterly brilliant. This is a show that needs to be seen (and heard) from "above."
The show is so powerful that I found myself welling up with tears a few times due to the combination of power and performance. But for all its headiness, the show is great fun: people were invited to sing along with songs they knew, and even invited to dance, though not in the aisles. (As Mr. Byrne jokingly pointed out, "In case of fire, the people dancing in the aisles have an unfair advantage.")
The show is only open until April 3rd. So run, don't walk, to see it before it disappears. You will thank yourself for doing so.
David Byrne's American Utopia
Hudson Theatre, NY
According to David Byrne during the encore we are all on a "road to nowhere" even if that message is delivered from the stage of the fabulously intimate and historic Hudson Theatre on West 44th Street in Times Square. This is not a musical, it is a full blown pop concert. It started as a tour for his 2018 solo album American Utopia. Many of the same musicians who graced the stage of that tour have migrated and morphed his vision onto a Broadway stage. And while it may be performed with grand theatrical gestures and choreographed movements, it is still an extraordinary theatrical performance, albeit one with intricate movements and 12 wireless musicians weaving in and out and around each other with each song. While there are songs from that aforementioned album there are plenty of crowd-pleasing songs from Talking Heads and his solo work, too. Those songs were met by clapping and yelling and standing ovations after each number -- "Slippery People," "Once In A Lifetime," "Burning Down The House," "This Must Be The Place," to name but a few.
Although this run is winding down and finally ending on February 16th, it was truly a "once in a lifetime" musical experience. Clearly it was as exciting and exhilarating as my first live encounter with Mr. Byrne's Talking Heads 40 years ago -- in full bloom and rock majesty -- played at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Oct. 31st (Halloween) 1980. (The Psychedelic Furs opened for them!) Mr. Byrne has carefully curated a celebration of his catalog while framing his favorite music with his new musical comrades.
I have always been drawn to Mr. Byrne's existentially poetic and cerebral music from the moment I head the Talking Heads' debut album 77. They were always a cut above the rest of their contemporary rock peers. Always with one foot into the future. So one should not be surprised at how forward thinking this thoughtful and artistic statement might be presented on the Great White Way.
Some of the "tai chi" soft and flowing movements have been seen on stage before both in filmmaker Jonathan Demme's iconic Stop Making Sense rock concert doc and Byrne's dance/music collaboration with choreographer/dancer Twyla Tharp for The Catherine Wheel. Regardless, the movements during the various songs was never indulgent nor redundant unless purposely redundant to make a point. With his crack 11- piece band providing all the live/wireless instrumentation, this is music performed without incident in the age of bluetooth technology. In fact, Mr. Byrne even made a point of their "music" when he introduced every cast member and their place of origin before they shared their instrument's sound with the audience. It was a very clever sequence that put to rest that they were performing to tracks!
There was also a wonderful story about the song "Everybody's Coming to My House" that was recorded by a group of teenagers from Detroit -- Detroit School of Arts featuring the Vocal Jazz Ensemble -- who completely remade the song into a more positive and uplifting version of his brooding exploration of loneliness. The version above is so far removed from his staging that both need to be seen to fully appreciate their converse relationship.
If Byrne continues to tour this pop art masterpiece, do not miss it. He will not stop making sense.