How do you improve upon the best – the most imaginative, artful and stimulating – concert of 2018?
You take it to Broadway and give it a mini-makeover and – voila – “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” which opened three weeks ago, is an invigorating, enlightening new experience.
In Minneapolis, the show played two nights in the 2,600-seat Orpheum Theatre. Shifting to the 970-capacity Hudson Theatre on Broadway means the stage is smaller, the setting more intimate and Byrne in full bloom.
The famously absent/present Renaissance man is clearly more present on Broadway, making eye-contact, smiling, joking and going off-script. It feels like he’s in the moment instead of reciting rote lines.
For example, on Sunday, he got off on a political tangent, as he is wont to do in his off-stage life. Mentioning that he's a Scottish immigrant/naturalized U.S. citizen, he points out that 55% of eligible voters participated in the 2016 election. He notes that in non-presidential elections, only 20% of those eligible actually vote. Then he has his lighting designer illuminate what 20% of the sell-out audience at the Hudson Theatre looks like. Point made.
“We can do better than 20%,” he urges two days before the off-year election. Then, he mentions that representatives from Head Count are in the lobby to help you to register to vote.
The brainy Byrne starts the evening alone onstage holding a model brain. He points out that human brains have more neural connections when we’re babies. “Does this mean babies are smarter than us, and we get stupider as we grow older?”
In this intimate, monochromatically grey space populated with 12 dancing musicians, Byrne’s keen sense of irony and his socially relevant messages pack more punch than they did on the concert circuit, though his emphatic rendition of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” about black men killed by police is resoundingly potent in any setting.
The Hudson Theatre set list is similar to those two nights in Minneapolis, though Byrne offers two fewer selections – five total – from last year’s “American Utopia” album, his somewhat dystopian depiction of the state of our nation. One of his points in this Broadway production is to reach out and try to connect with others even if it feels awkward at times.
Nine of the 21 numbers come from Talking Heads quirky catalog to the delight of the audience. However, this ain't no disco. But there is time for dancing. With a caveat. Before the irresistible “Burning Down the House,” Byrne tells theater-goers it’s OK to dance but, according to the fire marshal, not in the aisles.
The ingenious staging and choreography by Annie-B Parson still features the chain-mail “walls” framing three sides of the stage and 12 constantly moving musicians untethered to cords for their fully portable instruments.
Not surprisingly, six of the players are percussionists, helping to drive Byrne’s rhythmic sound, which, like the choreography, draws heavily from marching-band aesthetic.
The high-concept performance ends with a new and pointed kicker – an encore of Talking Heads’ 1985 favorite “Road to Nowhere” as Byrne and his mates march in a circle, heading nowhere together.
“David Byrne’s American Utopia” is up until Feb. 16 at the Hudson Theatre.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, the ever-fertile Byrne announced that he will stage an immersive new show in Denver in August -- “Theater of the Mind,” about the inner mysteries of the brain that he’s created with Mala Gaonkar, a businesswoman interested in neuroscience.
At 67, David Byrne keeps trying to make sense.