The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 19-JAN 20

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DEC 19-JAN 20 Issue

Burning Up the House

American Utopia. Left to right: Daniel Freedman, Bobby Wooten III, Chris Giarmo, David Byrne, Tendayi Kuumba, Angie Swan, Stéphane San Juan, and Karl Mansfield. Photo: Matthew Murphy © 2019.

Hudson Theatre
American Utopia
Through February 20, 2020
New York

We dance like this
Because it feels so damn good
If we could dance better
Well you know that we would
— “I Dance Like This,” by David Byrne and Brian Eno

David Byrne’s American Utopia, on Broadway, is a jukebox musical, yes, but it upends the genre. It’s at once brilliantly simple and subversively revolutionary, kind of like Byrne himself. Choreographer Annie-B Parson moves the dozen cast members continually throughout the 100-minute (no-intermission) show, in an entertaining marathon feat of patterns and rhythms that help to visualize the music. Parson’s body of work for her company, Big Dance Theater, incorporates movement with text and music in shows that often revolve around a story or historical event or character. Byrne speaks between songs in his straightforward manner about topics that concern him, encouraging our engagement without proselytizing.

It’s difficult to digest that David Byrne’s discography dates back more than four decades when he co-founded the Talking Heads. In the most recent phase of his life, he has recorded nine solo albums, in addition to branching out with books, films, radio, cycling advocacy, and other projects. When he emerged on the music scene, his sui generis music was dubbed new wave, but resisted any sonic tropes that might immediately tag it as being from a specific decade (like disco and punk). It’s one of the reasons that American Utopia feels timeless—fresh and energetic, even while audiences can sing along with many of its songs.

Other than his snow white hair, Byrne himself appears resistant to aging. Even at 67, he sustains a high level of energy, belting out his songs in his quirky voice, playing guitar or percussion, and moving—dancing—constantly. But the word dance doesn’t necessarily fit comfortably on Byrne, noted for his herky-jerky, undeniably awkward style. Parson plays with this, designing simple, repeating phrases of lunges, hand and arm gestures, and claps to provide a common structure for the performers. Byrne is backed up by two dancer/vocalists, Chris Giarmo (manically ebullient) and Tendayi Kuumba (silky smooth), who parlay the deliberately pedestrian vocabulary into individual stylizations.

Byrne says that people most want to look not at things, but other people. In light of that, American Utopia has no props, the only set being a shimmering, metal bead-chain curtain, permeable to allow entrances and exits. Rob Sinclair’s neon-hued lighting sometimes cuts through the curtain to emulate a screen or spotlight a performer. But what to do with the band, which plays a cornucopia of instruments?

The solution is to have them carry all their instruments, allowing them to dance and march. The bass and guitars are pretty straightforward, but the percussion comprises various Rube Goldberg-like gizmos hung from shoulder braces, similar to those seen in marching bands. In fact, Parson references the high school stadium entertainment and pep-rousing staple in numerous formation marches—circles, side-to-side lines, diagonals, interweaving groups—and the essential ramrod neutral position serves Byrne well. The concept of the marching band evokes Byrne’s ambitious, loony-in-a-good-way 2016 project, Contemporary Color, presented at the Barclays Center, which matched indie rock songwriters/bands with color guard teams in an arena spectacle.

Parson’s staging and choreography, while like a master class in composition invention, is perpetually appealing for its simplicity and relatability. Movement phrases are built by adding one move with each repetition—the time honored accumulation dance, like Trisha Brown’s mesmerizing Accumulation (1971). Performers walk in a circle while Kuumba skips merrily about, weaving in and out of the ring. The band forms a line downstage, and three of them hop forward for a measure and hop back, taking turns at the front. The company marches around the stage’s circumference in a precise square, or forms two columns, which weave through one another. Byrne plays and sings centerstage while his bandmates accompany him invisibly, thrusting only their instruments through the bead curtain for a hilarious visual punch line. Each song takes on its own spatial and kinetic design.

American Utopia. Photo: Matthew Murphy © 2019.

Over the years, Byrne has emerged as New York’s hippest, most accessible celebrity rocker. I’ve seen him on his bicycle in Soho, dressed all in white; have run into him at a café; and have sat next to him at a performance of Maria Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty (2007), a collaboration between Dance Heginbotham and Maira Kalman—who created the pre-show proscenium graphic for American Utopia. This appurtenance of the Everyman, Everywhere, enhances the friendly sensibility of American Utopia, and frames his encouragement to vote as more of a gentle nudge than a push. His passion against police brutality and racism boils to the surface in a rendering of Janelle Monáe’s song “Hell You Talmbout”(2013), which lists the names of victims of police violence.

And his music is, at least to me, so familiar that I can mouth the words to many—most—songs in the show without even thinking. In that sense, they’re like old friends. But parse them more closely, and … you may find yourself … (honestly, can you think of anyone else when you hear those four words?) delving into the absurdity of modern life, of criminal desperation, of generational change. Even the sweeter-sounding, more melodic songs, like “Glass, Concrete and Stone,” hint at the vacuousness of material things. In our lifetimes, he’s been a serious musical revolutionary creating catchy, memorable songs. Who’d have guessed they’d come together in a fantastic evening on Broadway, built not just on Byrne’s hits, but on a dual foundation of song and dance? Possibly only David Byrne himself.


Susan Yung

Susan Yung is a New York-based culture writer.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 19-JAN 20

All Issues