Not for mere whimsy does the evening begin with Byrne, alone on a stage bounded by immense curtains of metal chains, holding aloft a model of a human brain. He posits himself in this moment a kind of latter-day Hamlet, puzzling over the fate of Yorick. The nice thing about “American Utopia” — featuring tracks from his 2018 studio album and such new wave Talking Heads songs as “Don’t Worry About the Government” and “Burning Down the House” — is that it actually has some cogent thoughts to go along with that brain.
The 100-minute performance is a pretty stripped-down affair, and yet it is consistently eye- as well as ear-filling. Byrne and his 11 musician-cohorts, all dressed in identical, monochromatic gray, are the entirety of the stage furnishings, their bare feet signaling a serendipity and lack of pretense. (Rob Sinclair’s gorgeous lighting design is a particular enhancing factor.) “Us and you: That’s what this show is,” Byrne declares at one point, explaining how he sought a production with as few artificial barriers as possible between the instrumentalists and the audience.
In that spirit, he has incorporated a pair of singer-dancers, Tendayi Kuumba and Chris Giarmo, who winsomely execute Parson’s seductive Hula-Hoop swivels and coiling arm gestures to the rhythms of songs such as “Every Day Is a Miracle,” from the “American Utopia” album, and “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” from the Talking Heads’ hit 1983 “Speaking in Tongues” album. Around and with them, the musicians move, too, with the keyboardist (Karl Mansfield) and a multifaceted coterie of percussionists with instruments all strapped to their torsos. The assortments of drums, some of them stacked on platforms harnessed to the players, look like miniature metal forests, built to keep the evening’s incessant, infectious beat.
The silver-maned Byrne, in his sheepish, slightly gawky countenance, offers some spoken commentary now and then that activates the inclusive “us and you” component of “American Utopia.” Climate change, racism, the chaotic condition of our politics are alluded to but are not harped on. The most emphatic pitch he makes is on behalf of the ultimate expression of us and you in a pluralistic society: the importance of voting. “We can do better than 20 percent,” Byrne says, evenhandedly, referring to the average voter turnout in local American elections. (To reinforce that sentiment, representatives of a grass-roots civic organization are on hand in the Hudson to register new voters.)
Byrne’s Broadway stand — his show is here through Jan. 19 — follows in a path carved out successfully by Bruce Springsteen, who, two autumns ago, turned a deeply autobiographical concert into a hit theater event. Byrne himself is no stranger to musical theater; his lyrics and music, the latter with Fatboy Slim, enlivened the unique off-Broadway musical “Here Lies Love,” about the rapacious onetime Philippines first couple, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. “American Utopia” unites Byrne with Parson and “Here Lies Love” director Alex Timbers, credited here as a consultant. The blending of their brains once again provides a splendid theatrical alchemy.
The musicianship of “American Utopia” is sensational. The wireless portability of the string and percussion instruments aids in the impression of the music pouring out of the bodies of these performers, and Parson’s choreography gives urgent three-dimensionality to the lines on Byrne’s pages. Speaking of lines: When this gaggle of musicians moves, in circles and in other formations, you’ll feel you’re in the company of the grooviest marching band, ever.
David Byrne’s American Utopia, music by David Byrne. Choreography and musical staging by Annie-B Parson. Production consultant, Alex Timbers; lighting, Rob Sinclair; sound, Pete Keppler. With Daniel Freedman, Stéphane San Juan, Jacquelene Acevedo, Angie Swan, Gustavo Di Dalva, Tim Keiper, Bobby Wooten III, Mauro Refosco. About 1 hour 40 minutes. $69-$499. Through Jan. 19 at Hudson Theatre, 139-141 W. 44th St., New York. 855-801-5876. thehudsonbroadway.com.