For ‘Utopia,’ a welcome, and a rousing send-off
BOSTON – The art-pop musician David Byrne, formerly the lead singer of the Talking Heads, isn’t marching on Broadway the same way that Bruce Springsteen did.
“American Utopia,” which completed its run at the Emerson Colonial Theatre on Sept. 28 before going on to Broadway, is not a play or musical in the traditional sense.
But it is a theatrical experience with music, and Mr. Byrne and his 11 fellow performers, at a recent performance, enthralled a full house of theater-goers who still remember his previous work and are both intrigued and surprised at his present incarnation.
The idea for this show came out of a tour of 27 countries Byrne undertook in support of his 2018 album “American Utopia.”
In an interview in the New York Times, Byrne said going to Broadway had never been “a driving force” in his life, but the 2018 tour changed that, with people telling him that the show had a theatrical future.
Byrne’s association with the Talking Heads ended in 1988, and his solo career since then has taken him in many different directions, including writing two musicals, and winning an Oscar for his contributions to the score of “The Last Emperor”
He and the Talking Heads certainly helped advance the art of the music video. When he decided to go ahead with this project, he sought help with the staging, and he brought in as a consultant Alex Timbers, who staged “Moulin Rouge!” at the Colonial in 2018 to rave reviews before it went on to Broadway. Still, the piece owes but much to the work of Annie B-Parson, whose musical staging and choreography are central to its success.
Two members of the cast – vocalists Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba – are engaged in continuous synchronized movement virtually throughout and while Byrne is the nexus of the production, this is a true ensemble piece. Byrne takes the lead on the vocals and chips in on the guitar, but he is both generous sharing the stage and effusive with the praise of his players.
Much of the theatricality of the piece comes from the spoken words interspersed between the musical numbers. Byrne waxes philosophical at the outset of “American Utopia,” hefting a model of the human brain and musing about the millions of connections in the brain we have as a baby, most of which fall by the wayside as grow older.
Using that theme, he made some cogent observations but at one point made a comparison between humans and bicycles, which drew a tepid response and laughter as he told the audience “remind me to get rid of that line.”
In true pop-artist form, the entire cast are dressed in gray suits and perform barefoot; hopefully, the set design included flooring that prevented the players from picking up splinters on the stage of the iconic 120-year-old theater.
The stage show has songs from the “Utopia” album but also solo songs, tracks from the Talking Heads and even a Janelle Monae song, “Hell You Talmbout,” a rhythmic chant that includes names such as Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Sharonda Singleton, with those on stage encouraging theater-goers to “say this name.”
The music is heavy on percussion, with no fewer than six of the 12 performers listed as percussionists, and at times, has elements of a marching band – a rather eclectic one, at that.
Byrne is in good voice and comfortable throughout, and he even presides over a mosh put of sorts as he urges theater-goers to dance – and they did – during the Talking Heads 1983 tune “Burning Down This House,” with a combination of Baby Boomers sand younger folk swaying in their seats.
While Byrne spoke of the vast political divide in the nation and issues such as climate change, he is not despairing. Far from it. He encourages people to register and get out to vote, and remains hopeful that someday the American experiment will get it right.
In one of the final shows before leaving Boston, a full house at the Emerson Colonial House gave Byrne and Co. a rousing send-off to begin their run on Broadway. If the Boston run is any indication, more good times lie ahead when the show arrives at the Hudson Theatre on Oct. 4.
“American Utopia” will begin a limited run at the Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street on Broadway on Oct. 4, with an official opening on Oct. 20, closing and Jan. 19. Americanutopiabroadway.com