“David Byrne’s American Utopia,” which opened Sunday at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre for a limited run, marks the latest Broadway residency for a ’70s rock star. And the former Talking Heads frontman’s approach to the Midtown venue is a distinct departure from earlier efforts from the likes of Bruce Springsteen — whose own Broadway tour won wide acclaim, a special Tony Award and a Netflix special.
For one thing, Byrne recognizes that his song catalog isn’t as story-driven or autobiographical as Springsteen’s — and that nobody is longing to hear the winding origin story (if there is one) to esoteric hits like “Burning Down the House.”
But Byrne emerged in the downtown art scene and the Talking Heads were early to embrace the visual possibilities of the music video — and that passion for psychedelic imagery coupled with percussive beats is very much in evidence in “American Utopia.”
After getting rave reviews for his unusual concert version of the 2018 album “American Utopia” — his first solo album to reach the Billboard Top 10 — he reteamed with theater director Alex Timbers and choreographer Annie-B Parson to make it a more Broadway-style experience. (The three had collaborated on “Here Lies Love,” a delightful pop musical about Imelda Marcos that premiered at the Public Theater in 2013 and had a long Off-Broadway run.)
“American Utopia” is concert as one-off theatrical event — the type of show you might see at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (where Madonna recently performed a comparably distinctive stage-concert performance supporting her new “Madame X” album).
Byrne surrounds himself with 11 accomplished musicians, six on percussion, and all dressed in identical gray suits and barefoot. And together they move about a stage surrounded on three sides by curtains of metal chains, creating a series of stage tableaux. Parson’s choreography is a crafty mix of low-impact rhythmic movement and marching band, an effect amplified by the fact that the musicians all tote their own instruments as they move about the stage.
They sound terrific, which is another smart move because the 67-year-old Byrne, never the strongest vocalist, can warble a bit on sustained notes.
The song list is old and new, from Kurt Schwitters’ nearly century-old “Primeval Sonata” with its Dadaesque lyrics to a Janelle Monáe protest song that he asked permission to cover after hearing the hip-hop and R&B chanteuse perform it at the Women’s March. Yes, he includes plenty of Talking Heads hits to get fans on their feet.
Byrne has a showman’s command of the stage, but you may ask yourself why he bothered with his between-song riffs about the science of neural connections or pro forma shout-outs to progressive causes (“We’re all immigrants!” “Register to vote!”). During these lulls, which are at least mercifully brief, you may be tempted to cry out: Stop making sense! Start making more music!