David Byrne Delivers To Boston’s Colonial Theatre With ‘American Utopia’ (SHOW REVIEW)

David Byrne’s American Utopia may have started as an outdoor summer tour, but it returned to Boston’s Emerson Colonial Theatre modified, improved and ready for Broadway. When it was announced that the former Talking Heads frontman was doing an American Utopia residency before a four-month Broadway engagement, it wasn’t hard to appreciate why the enigmatic New Wave icon would be bringing his latest production into a traditional theatrical setting. What couldn’t have been predicted was how much the show was retooled and modified from its rock show roots to a Tony Award-worthy product.

The September 24th performance started out with Byrne alone on the stage performing “Here,” from the album bearing the production’s name. Song by song, one by one, band members joined him until he had a crowd. It may not have been intentional, but this was exactly the same way things unfolded in their iconic concert film, Stop Making Sense. The clear connection between American Utopia and what has been his most theatrical project to date underscores how intent Byrne was to go for broke on this production.

Rather than having a traditional drummer, American Utopia has nearly a half-dozen musicians, each responsible for a few small drums or cymbals that they kept attached via a marching band-type abdominal rig. The synth player, Karl Mansfield, carried the heaviest load of the instrumentalists, utilizing a similar abdominal apparatus, and the end result kept the performance space clear of any kind of drum stands, speakers or structures that would potentially interfere with the free flow of choreography. For as much attention as the percussion ensemble generated, the rhythm section was completed by Bobby Wooten whose oversized stage presence really allowed him to stand out from the crowd as more than just a bassist.

The setlist barely changed from the American Utopia rock concert, still made up of half the songs on the album, a handful of Talking Heads bangers and Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” which pays tribute to the many victims of Police Shootings that brought about the #BlackLivesMatter movement.  Byrne’s spastic, intentionally unbalanced dancing had the crowd in a frenzy during the droning intro to Heads classic “Once in a Lifetime,” and “Burning Down the House” had the crowd on their feet and as engaged as they got throughout the evening. The performance at the Colonial featured newly interwoven monologue material that addressed the full potential of the human experience both existentially and neurologically and Byrne’s dialogue really helped to segment the performance in a way that gave this show the kind of narrative structure you expect from a theatrical production.

Another change in the production was a lighter emphasis placed on the light show. Both incarnations of the tour draped the sides and back of the stage in a wall of what looked like metallic beads which significantly amplified the effect of a few traditional lights but where the rock concert really showed off how much they could do with so little, the pre-Broadway production showed off on a few occasions but opted to let the more intimate space further display the performers themselves.

Byrne has a Grammy and an Oscar under his belt and in addition to his musical endeavors, he’s proven to be a successful writer and Avant-Garde Urban Planner (he’s a celebrity on the bicycle circuit as well). Whether or not he went into the theatrical adaptation of American Utopia hell-bent on winning a Tony, a smart gambler would place a wager on a win. Whether it’s his collaborations with the likes of St. Vincent or his role curating entire stages at Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, he’s clearly established himself as a Kingmaker and after decades on the forefront of the artistic vanguard, he’s getting to the point where he’s running out of worlds to conquer. Even with a Tony, he’d still be an Emmy shy of an EGOT but as American Utopia shifts from Boston to Broadway, he can absolutely add theatre producer to the resume.

Live photos by Matthew Murphy

David Byrne Setlist Colonial Theatre, Boston, MA, USA, David Byrne's American Utopia Pre-Broadway Engagement 2019

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