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NY Theater Reviews

(L to R) Tim Keiper, Gustavo Di Dalva, St├ęphane San Juan, Daniel Freedman and David Byrne/ Ph: Matthew Murphy

AMERICAN IDYLLS

By JEREMY GERARD

David Byrne leads a trio of works (including Soft Power and Scotland, PA) that reflect on the state of the union.

What do Madame Butterfly, the Chiffons and David Byrne have in common? They all break your heart with a song called “One Fine Day” (“Un Bel Di,” in Puccini’s case), a cri de coeur in the face of despair sung across the decades from 1904 (the opera) to 1962 (the Goffin/King pop hit) and 2008 (from Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, Byrne’s second collaboration with Brian Eno): “Even though a man is made of clay/Everything can change that one fine day.”
 
You can hear Byrne sing “One Fine Day” near the end of American Utopia, his retrospective tour (and album), which has taken over the intimate Hudson Theatre for a limited Broadway run. Accompanied by a 10-member multi-culti band of instrumentalists and two extraordinary dancers, the show is a knockout, as stunning to hear as it is to watch, and comparable in its careful rollout of an overall vision and aesthetic, not to mention its full-on emotional wallop, as Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway run at the Walter Kerr.
 
And if optimism in the face of evidence to the contrary is Byrne’s fallback position, he addresses that here as well, following up “One Fine Day” with his 1985 Talking Heads song, “Road To Nowhere”: “We’re on a road to nowhere, come on inside/Takin’ that ride to nowhere–we’ll take that ride.”
 
Along the way in this 100-minute show, Byrne has acknowledged these dark times, encouraged everyone to vote (folks in the lobby facilitate instant registration) and enjoined the audience in a fiery account of Janelle Monae and Jidenna Mobisson’s “Hell You Talmbout,” a call-and-response protest against the killing of black men by white police officers.
 
All the musicians wear their instruments, which makes American Utopia something of a John Doyle show in reverse. Where Doyle had actors play their own instruments in stripped-down Sondheim, these musicians play actors in the strange and sometimes loopy world Byrne has conjured with the help of choreographer Annie-B Parson and director Alex Timbers. (They're billed as "choreographer and musical staging,"and "production consultant" respectively.Timbers staged Here Lies Love, Byrne’s enchanting collaboration with British beat-monger Fatboy Slim, about Imelda Marcos.)
 
But what American Utopia most put me in mind of was Byrne’s collaboration with director and playwright Robert Wilson on his extravagant minimalist opera, The Civil Wars, commissioned for (but never presented at) the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival. Byrne composed linking scenes for the long work (aptly titled The Knee Plays and presented at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis) that encapsulated his prescient, push me-pull you prognostications:
 
In the future water will be expensive…
In the future everyone's house will be like a little fortress
In the future everyone's house will be a total entertainment center…
In the future political and other decisions will be based completely on opinion polls
 
In 1984!
 
Suffused with ambivalence that can be as comic as it is rueful, American Utopia gets jitterbuggy here and there. “Every Day Is a Miracle” is little more than a stoner riff. (“What does it feel like to be your tongue/Moving around in your mouth?/To be a flea in the forest of your love?/A cockroach in the cosmos of your house?”) And the interstitial material, thankfully brief, doesn’t add much. But the show holds together as forcefully as, and more entertainingly than, Green Day’s blunt-object assault American Idiot. It has heavy ballast as music and theater, if not as musical theater.
 
The state of the union is also on the mind of David Henry Hwang, who has for over three decades viewed his homeland through Chinese-American eyes. For Soft Power, his collaboration with composer Jeanine Tesori at the Public Theater, he again interweaves a reconceived American narrative (in M. Butterfly, it was the Puccini opera; here it’s Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I) with a personal narrative. Four years ago, he was stabbed in the neck and severely injured near his Brooklyn home.
 
As in several of his recent plays, Soft Power features a character named DHH (and played by the terrific Francis Jue). During his long recovery, DHH is approached by a producer from Shanghai who wants to commission him to write a splashy, Broadway-style show “such as The Lion King, Mamma Mia and Cirque du Soleil,” he says, adding that “You have proven ability. To create smash hit shows. For Broadway.” The offer is for Hwang to adapt a popular Chinese film whose title translates as “Stick With Your Mistake,” about a marriage that appears to be on the rocks until the couple reconciles, per the title.
 
DHH introduces the producer to Hillary Clinton, which sets in motion a series of production numbers the likes of which I’ve never seen at the Public – big, over-the-top, Busby Berkeley-style showstoppers as DHH contemplates the commission. A-swirl in ideas, the musical explores the possibilities in inverting The King and I from its Western-centered tale of educating the uncouth Asian in the noble ways of the West along with the merging of Clinton in a hallucinatory fantasy about the election and the intermingling of the producer’s insistence on a happy ending and Hwang’s healing vision of democracy.
 
Staged by Hwang’s audaciously gifted director Leigh Silverman, with all-stops-out choreography by Sam Pinkleton, Soft Power is a wild trip that sometimes stumbles on its own ambition (not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that). Like American Utopia, the musical concludes on a note of ambivalence, with Clinton leading a huge production number celebrating democracy: “I believe,” the chorus repeats, like the na-na-na-nanananaz in “Hey, Jude,” concluding with “In America” – though not before DHH interjects, first in Chinese, then in English, “Good fortune will follow. If we somehow survive.”
 
But by this time, the production has overwhelmed whatever irony is indicated by that ending. I left without ever having felt in in on the joke.
 
And moving, briefly, from the nearly sublime to the wholly ridiculous, we come to the Roundabout Theatre Company’s commissioned new work, Scotland, PA, at the company’s off-Broadway showcase, the Laura Pels.
 
Based on a film of the same name, the musical loosely adapts Macbeth, moving the locale from Birnam Wood to the title backwater and a burger joint, where easygoing but inventive Mac (Ryan McCartan) and his discontented wife Pat (the very talented Taylor Iman Jones, late of Groundhog Day and Head Over Heels) wilt under the greedy owner, Duncan (Jeb Brown), a petty tyrant dismissive of Mac’s innovative ideas. (His notes anticipate drive-thru windows, Chicken McNuggets and Big Macs, among other things. You get the idea.) This sadly idealized version of the American Dream is creepily smiley-faced until Mac and Pat get their due, in what feels slapped on more out of obligation to Shakespeare’s tragedy than fidelity to the show.

With music and lyrics by Adam Gwon, and book by Michael Mitnick, the musical trades mostly in dopey slackerisms and generic pop heart-on-sleeve balladry. What appeal the show has is as a kind of grisly monster-mashup of Little Shop of Horrors (which is enjoying a terrific revival nearby) and, though way out of its league, Sweeney Todd. The 70s sensibility and humor have all the bite of steam-table vegetables. Shakespeare has survived plenty of manhandling; staged by Lonny Price with choreography by Josh Rhodes, Scotland, PA is at worst forgettable.