Review: Only a "Psycho Killer" Wouldn't Cheer for David Byrne's "American Utopia"

Also: Marisa Tomei and Mary-Louise Parker return to Broadway.

Pictured above: David Byrne in American Utopia.

Rocker David Byrne is no stranger to theater. He cowrote the score (with Fatboy Slim) of Here Lies Love, the excitingly immersive disco musical about Imelda Marcos, as well as creating the book and score of the underrated rock musical Joan of Arc: Into the Fire. And now, he brings us a glorified concert called American Utopia, with musical staging and choreography by Annie-B Parson and production consulting by Alex Timbers. (Parson and Timbers were his Here Lies Love collaborators).

Like Here Lies Love, American Utopia started life as a concept album, this one just last year. That led to this theatrical concert, which includes songs from that album (like “Everybody’s Coming To My House”), plus Talking Heads hits (“Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House”) and some of Byrne’s solo stuff. Having played all over the world, including a pre-Broadway stint in Boston, the show now lands on Broadway, where only a “Psycho Killer” wouldn’t stand and cheer it.

Byrne comes off like a hipster Mr. Rogers crossed with your savviest professor, affably narrating in between his well-sung yelps and vocal commentaries. He’s dressed in a powder gray suit (to match his hair), as is everyone else on stage, including six percussionists, two guitarists, a keyboard player, and two singer-dancers, all of them multitalented and extraordinary.

The show starts with Byrne cradling a replica of a brain, which gives the first clue that this will be a cerebral exercise, though it manages to titillate all the senses with its seamless wall of wonderfulness. Byrne speaks to the audience, explaining some of his themes, like the brain functions we lose as we age, the difficulty of meeting others, and the fact that people love looking at other people, which explains why the stage has no furniture on it—just humans and their instruments.

The cast—not bound by any plug-in cords—is surrounded by white fringed curtains and bathed in expert lighting by Rob Sinclair—and that’s enough, thank you. Parson and Timbers have them all swirling and swerving in quirky, brilliant motions as the musicality rings out, whether it be Byrne’s eclectic sounds or other material, like a deeply moving version of “Hell You Talmbout," which Janelle Monae wrote for the Women’s March as a protest song commemorating innocent black people who were murdered. (Also potent are Byrne’s remarks about the importance of immigrants and his urging the audience to register to vote with the help of facilitators positioned in the lobby.)

Toward the end of the show, the curtains are up, it’s just bare walls, and they’re singing a capella, but the stage feels as full as it did all night.


Marisa Tomei Aims for the Heart in The Rose Tattoo

Joan Marcus

Rose Tattoo

Marisa Tomei in The Rose Tattoo.

Tennessee Williams loved writing about women who’ve been through terrible crises and, as a result, cling ferociously onto survival, decency, and shreds of beauty. In his The Rose Tattoo, set near New Orleans, a Sicilian-American seamstress named Serafina Delle Rose is such a woman, having lost her husband, whom she adored, only to then hear murmurs that he had been cheating with a neighboring lady.

As reality starts creeping into her self-created bubble, Serafina goes into rages while holding onto hope and waiting for a sign from the blessed virgin. She gradually finds love again in the arms of an over-the-top truck driver, which ignites a life affirming play that feels like middle-drawer Williams, though it won the Best Play Tony in 1951. Maureen Stapleton won a Tony for the original version and the magnificent Anna Magnani copped the Oscar for bringing heart and soul to the 1955 movie. And now, Marisa Tomei takes on the role, doing a lovely job of inhabiting Serafina’s grief, frustration, amazement, and rekindled lust for life.

By detailing each moment and mood shift, Tomei helps make Williams’ words ring out and keeps things shy of a full-length Prince spaghetti commercial. She’s matched by a funny and believable Emun Elliott as Alvaro Mangiacavllo, the truck driver with three dependents, who barrels into her life—with the same body as her late husband, but “a clown of a face”—and proceeds to woo her, even sporting a rose tattoo he happened to get planted on his chest because Serafina had mentioned her husband’s. (Serafina swears she saw the same tattoo temporarily pop up on her own chest on the night she conceived a child she later lost. It’s that kind of play.) But she does have a daughter—named, yes, Rosa (Ella Rubin)—about whose love life Serafina is hypocritically strict, while she throws herself into the arms of the the excitable Alvaro.

The Trip Cullman-directed revival is zesty, incorporating lots of movement and song, though some of the supporting actors overdo it and not all the slapstick touches work. The set is not great either—Serafina’s wall-less house is backed by scores of plastic pink flamingos and even the shelves of lit candles don’t create the stunning image you might expect. But the scene where Tomei and Elliott both cry as they let down their defenses (though his character is afraid to look like a “sissy”) left a big, old Italian smile on my face. Enjoy—though at the matinee I attended, an usher’s walkie talkie beeped and fed back through much of the play. Maybe that was a sign from the virgin?


Forbidden Broadway Takes Aim at Moulin Rouge! and Dear Evan Hansen

Broadway spoofs itself pretty well these days, with its mixture of obvious jukebox shows, schlock movie adaptations, and pointlessly reworked classics, but Gerard Alessandrini’s lovingly satirical take on all the above is always welcome. Having done Forbidden Broadway spoof revues since 1982, he now weighs in with Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation, which he directed and Gerry McIntyre choreographed, with Fred Barton on the piano.

A review giving away too much of this show’s material would spoil the fun, but let me assure you that there’s lots of acidic wit to be had, from the angry Woke-lahoma! to the overheated Ferryman takeoff and beyond. There’s even Hassidic wit in the takeoff on the Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof. What’s more, Jenny Lee Stern is socko as Judy Garland singing “Zellweger Smells in the Part” (to the tune of “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart”), working a priceless Renée impression into the song, and she also scores as Mary Poppins singing about the various places where the “lost shows” (like Leap of Faith and Be More Chill) go.

Future star Aline Mayagoitia is fabulous in multiple roles, like Karen Olivo in Moulin Rouge!, singing, “Jukebox Is a Star’s Best Friend,” though I was surprised that her resemblance to Katrina Lenk wasn’t taken advantage of. Chris Collins-Pisano truly delivers in various Danny Burstein (and other) roles, Immanuel Houston is terrific as Andre de Shields, Billy Porter, and Jennifer Holliday, and young Joshua Turchin does a fine job as an Evan Hansen replacement who’s overacted his way into has-been-hood.

But I’m giving away too much! Amazingly, Alessandrini pulls off a mood switch towards the end, though it leads, naturally, to a laugh. The whole show allows you to hate on virtually every single thing on Broadway while also staying a fan—and that deserves an ovation.


Mary-Louise Parker as a Lonely Teacher in The Sound Inside

Jeremy Daniel

Will Hochman (L) and Mary-Louise Parker (R) in The Sound Inside.

Bella is a brilliant creative writing professor at Yale, but she’s got a lot to learn. In fact, she’s deeply lonely, is giving up on her health, and feels like she hasn’t achieved nearly as much as she intended—though a student, Christopher, craves her time so much that he keeps dropping in on her without an appointment. Christopher is angry at such time-worn topics as email, Twitter, selfies, and barista-served coffee and seems to be teetering on the edge, though he has a real writing gift and exchanges intricate ideas with Bella about the art of writing—and living. And dying, as it turns out.

In Adam Rapp’s first Broadway play, The Sound Inside (which premiered at the Williamston Theatre Festival), Mary-Louise Parker is the prickly prof and Will Hochman is her pupil, both giving strong performances as they navigate a story, populated with monologues from both of them, that could well be that of one of their novels. Bella is such a loner that she says people “accuse” her of being a lesbian (“It’s not a crime!” I wanted to yell), though she later remarks that she’s 32.5% lesbian, even if she really craves “a fat man who can still get it up."

Lots of literary names are dropped, along with Bella’s defenses, amidst the power plays of the mentor-pupil relationship—is this a sort of literary answer to Equus?—and Bella ends up making a shocking request of Christopher, which I won’t reveal.

As directed by David Cromer, The Sound Inside is a haunting piece that at first seems off-putting, but gains in power—Rapp’s writing about writing being something worth writing about.

Latest News