American Utopias – Red Hook Star-Revue

I generally do not like Broadway shows. While I appreciate the talent, the stagecraft, etc. of Broadway shows, I just don’t generally connect with the style of music.
And yet, in January 2022, during the height of Omicron, I saw two Broadway shows in one week that absolutely blew my mind. Both shows were last minute. Totally unexpected.
I received a text from my friend Jack on a Tuesday saying he had extra comp tickets to see David Byrne’s American Utopia for Thursday of that week. To be honest, I thought I was seeing a concert. I didn’t know it was a Broadway show. Jack sent me the address to the St. James Theater as I was on my way in a taxi.
The St. James Theater seats about 1,700 people, so it’s an intimate setting. David Byrne came out to the stage holding a model of a brain in his hand. As he sang “Here,” Byrne pointed to areas of the brain that are responsible for various functions of the mind and body.
Here is a region of abundant details
Here is a region that is seldom used
Here is a region that continues to live
Even when the other sections are removed

Who sings songs about brains? The song is a meditation on how the brain works. But Byrne doesn’t just list anatomical names for parts of the brain. He ponders the meaning of it all, ending the song on a question:
Here is many sounds for your brain to comprehend
Here the sound, it’s organized into things that make some sense
Here there is something we call hallucination
Is it the truth or merely a description?

Let me make a risky disclaimer. I’ve never been the biggest Talking Heads fan. I liked them OK, but I’ve preferred David Byrne’s solo career post the Talking Heads. Byrne is clearly still in the process of artistic discovery. I’ve heard people say they’ve seen David Byrne’s American Utopia on HBO or have seen the Broadway show more than once. Many agree that Byrne’s shows have gotten better. His one-time edgy stage performance of him has become more engaging. The joke isn’t just about you. In this incarnation of David Byrne, you’re in on the joke. And he even makes fun of himself. He was charming and funny without pandering.
Like the stage shows Byrne is known for, David Byrne’s American Utopia is performance art. With an incredible cast of musicians and singers, the movement and dancing are choreographed to synchronize with the lighting and the lyrics. It’s not the typical Broadway singing and dancing. It reminded me of shows I’d see at performance art venues like La Mama twenty or so years ago. But there was so much comedy and joy in all of this. Even the little electronic squiggly notes that trailed off the end of song phrases were mimicked in dance movements by the two backup vocalists, Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba, making the audience giggle.
And the crowd responded to the energy that the performers were putting forth. People were hungry for the amazing performance that the players were offering. It was spellbinding. I heard hoots, cheers, shouts, and calls to the stage. The vibration level was palpable.
Like much of Byrne’s music, these songs are very percussive. Though it has altered in the past, in addition to the backup singers already mentioned, the band is made up of Jacquelene Acevedo, Gustavo Di Dalva, Daniel Freedman, Tim Keiper, Karl Mansfield, Mauro Refosco, Stéphane San Juan, Angie Swan and Bobby Wooten III. All the musicians are excellent, but the West African, Brazilian Cuban, Moroccan, and other drummers really drive the music. People were out of their seats dancing, their arms in the air. It was a concert after all.
What I loved about the show is that, despite the heaviness of the lyrics and some of the political commentary, Byrne and the musicians sent you out the door joyfully singing the final songs “Road to Nowhere” and “The Great Curve.” I don’t know if it was just a great night, but it was a perfect show, end to end. David Byrne’s American Utopia has announced its final performances at the St. James Theater through Sunday, April 3.
Now, weirdly, my mother-in-law gifted me tickets to Flying Over Sunset, which is about Aldous Huxley’s role as a philosopher and psychedelic guru in the Hollywood, California area in the fifties and sixties. I’ve been a fan of Aldous Huxley since I first read Brave New World in the seventh grade. I’ve since read nearly every novel, every essay collection and pretty much all Huxley’s non-fiction, including Heaven and Hell, Moksha and Doors of Perception. When your mother-in-law buys you tickets for an Aldous Huxley related show, you know she’s onto who you are, and you appreciate that.
Flying Over Sunset is based on a book by James Lapine (who also directed the musical). Like American Utopia, Flying Over Sunset has the audacity to concern itself with science and the deepest questions of reality and spirituality. It opens with Aldous Huxley traipsing through The World’s Biggest Drug Store with his wife, Maria, and philosopher, Gerald Heard. We meet Aldous picking products off the shelves and staring at them, hopelessly fascinated with the phenomenon of American consumerism. While Huxley gets down on his knees, holding a can of shaving cream up to his face, he is trailed by Maria and Gerald babysitting him. Aldous is portrayed as a kind of stoner. He takes more LSD than the other characters, Cary Grant, Clare Booth Luce and Gerald Heard and seems always ready for the next trip. And while this doesn’t sound anything like the serious and courageous intellectual Aldous Huxley whom I’ve greatly admired most of my life, it does make the musical more humorous.
The staging and lighting at the Vivian Beaumont Theater (at Lincoln Center) are spectacular. I was awestruck by the thirty feet curved walls that sweep in and out across the stage. I was worried that the performers might get hit by the moving stage if they didn’t precisely sync their movements. But that just belies my inexperience with Broadway shows. What do I know? The songs by Tom Kitt and Michael Korie were entertaining and comical. However, I won’t be listening to the soundtrack again.
The main story of Flying Over Sunset describes how Huxley, Grant, Luce, and Heard are thrown together for a wild night on LSD. They each experience visions of both heaven and hell. While I enjoyed the show, it didn’t accurately depict LSD trips. The hell experiences that each character had reminded me of 1950’s portrayals of people with mental health issues — not people who were experiencing Mind-At-Large as described in Huxley’s books. Grant, Luce, and Huxley see troubled visions of their mothers or fathers and relive these experiences on stage. I think more archetypal visions of demons and mythological characters might have been more accurate, but this was not a performance of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, it was a musical. Secondly, I would also have liked to have seen their experiences portrayed with a bit more seriousness. More than just colorful and fanciful, psychedelic trips are often reported as being the most significant experiences of a person’s life. While I understand that Flying Over Sunset is a musical and not a staging of a sacred book, there was a missed opportunity here.
Michelle Dorrance’s choreography for the tap-dancing scenes is dazzling. Tony Yazbeck (Older Cary Grant) and Atticus Ware (Younger Cary Grant) received standing ovations. This may have been the highlight of the show.
After not seeing a Broadway show since Honeymoon in Vegas a few years ago, I was lucky to see two great shows in the same week during the height of a world crisis. While I am not typically a Broadway music fan, Broadway is one of New York City’s most important industries. Broadway musicals hire creative talent: dancers, stagecraft artists, musicians, etc., enriching the culture of the city in countless ways. Broadway has been hurting and this impacts the art and artists of New York City. I am incredibly grateful that I was one of the lucky few to see these shows.

flying over sunset

David Byrne’s American Utopia

Mike Fiorito

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