This is a (truly) feel-good musical. It’s David Byrne’s way of playing a small part in bringing together a country fractured by politics, the pandemic, and social unrest. The production is beautifully done, blending together meaningful lyrics, interesting music with ear-catching sound effects, choreography by Annie-B Parson that resembles a kaleidoscope, sophisticated production design by Alex Timbers and a rhapsodic spirit. It’s so creative throughout, the time flashes by as you try to soak in all the elements.
All this is with the backdrop of muted colors—mostly shades of gray—and everyone barefoot. Aptly, it shows children’s drawings first (going back to our roots), then David Byrne holds up one of those brain models you’ve probably only seen in college classes. He points out the part that survives even when it is disconnected from the other parts, and highlights those parts that provide clarity or confusion, parts that process sound, and those related to hallucinations. He observes that babies’ brains have millions of connections, but as we grow, only those that are meaningful to our experience remain, that place where the world makes sense. He will come back to referencing the ethos of America and our ways of changing and making sense of life as the show goes on.
In his songs, David Byrne attends to the universal experiences of loneliness, awkwardness, feelings of not belonging, love for people, aspirations, senselessness, displacement, violence, and much more. He has songs about the experience of soaring along and then suddenly wondering, “How did I get here?” And afterwards, realizations that “it’s the same as it ever was.” So…what are we to do? His answer has to do with valuing other people, dancing, being sensitive to what is around us, and being alert to possible dangers.
There is a topical, very moving number toward the end—Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmabout”, in which the singers repeat the names of blacks Emmet Till (1955), Eric Garner (2014) and others more recently killed at the hands of the police. But many oldie favorites of Byrne’s songs are sprinkled throughout.
American Utopia is a beautiful collaboration between Spike Lee and David Byrne in converting Byrne’s Broadway stage show (which had to stop performing live when the pandemic hit) into a movie whose songs—some old, some new—continue to resound in your brain long after the ending. The same happens with the many different moods brought up by the production.
A musical rare in its encompassing so many elements of human existence, particularly in these troubling times, ultimately leading to a sense of healing and peace.
Grade: A By Donna R. Copeland