From his days with art-rock pioneers Talking Heads and through his solo career, David Byrne has had a keener-than-most sense of how to turn pop music into the catalyst for a spectacle — Talking Heads’ videos provided some of early MTV’s most lasting images, the band’s concert film “Stop Making Sense” redefined the idea of a live album, and he’s presented his music accompanied by color guards and choirs.
With “American Utopia,” which finishes up its run of preview performances at the Emerson Colonial Theatre this weekend before kicking off a Broadway run next month, Byrne pairs his flair for rock pageantry with the sort of inclusive spirit that powers mosh pits and singalongs between strangers. Part revue of his earlier work, part performance-art interpretation of his vast back catalog, part feisty rock concert, and all Byrne, “American Utopia” is exuberant and generous, reveling in the simple joys of song and movement as it encourages its viewers to give each other a second look.
The show opens with Byrne — wearing a suit, barefoot — sitting behind a table and offering up some thoughts on the way humans’ brains are, at birth, filled with connections that atrophy as they grow older. Rekindling connection, not just between cranial nerves but individuals, would be one of the show’s dominant themes, one that was reflected in the stark staging as well as the song choice and Byrne’s heartfelt, witty speeches to the audience.
Byrne surrounded himself with 11 musicians and vocalists, all like him clad in suits and shoeless, onstage; they would venture through the beaded curtain at the stage’s border and weave in and out of one another, offering a visual complement to Byrne’s notion of camaraderie while providing a percussion-heavy, precisely calibrated musical accompaniment that felt neither too clamorous nor too spare. (At one point, to illustrate the fact that all the musicians onstage were providing all the sound being pumped out by the Colonial’s impressive system, he had them begin the Talking Heads cut “Born Under Punches” one by one, deliberately staking out its musical parameters.)
One of modern pop’s most immediately recognizable singers, Byrne remains able to shift from a yelp to a tender croon while possessing a sense of wonder throughout. He launched into the bewildered lyrics of “Once in a Lifetime” with the fervency of a revival-tent preacher, and used his higher register to stunning effect on the loping “Bullet.”
Byrne’s asides about how people connect to one another, whether through apps or voting or high senses of self-confidence, struck a balance between bemusement and gravitas, but the show’s emotional climax came near its end, when Byrne and his company performed Janelle Monáe’s still-urgent “Hell You Talmbout,” which he noted possessed the qualities of a protest song and a eulogy while also retaining hope about the possibility of change in what he called the “imperfect world” and from within. As he and his musicians called out the names of black Americans who died because of racial violence — Emmett Till, Sandra Bland, Amadou Diallo among them — the commands to “say their name” gained urgency and potency.
This being a dry run, there were still a few minor kinks to be worked out; after one aside about the relative interestingness of humans and bicycles didn’t quite land, Byrne deadpanned, “I’m going to have to take that line out,” occasioning laughter. But slickness would be antithetical to the show’s overall point, even if the venue and visuals demanded a sort of formality — when, for example, he and his band were on the verge of launching into Talking Heads’ paranoid 1983 hit “Burning Down the House,” he invited the audience to get up out of their seats and dance, the sort of letting loose that would have probably happened earlier in the show had the context been different.
But that shift of context is part of what makes “American Utopia” such a marvel; it combines rock-show swagger and Broadway style, of dance-performance coordination and recital-worthy solo precision, all of which are made even more potent by the stylistic variations of Byrne’s catalog and, perhaps most importantly, the humanity shining brightly from Byrne’s intent. It’s not a reinvention of the form as much as it is a hopeful recalibration, an undertaking made in hopes of bringing wonder back to the world.
Choreography and musical staging by Annie-B Parson. Alex Timbers, production consultant. At Emerson Colonial Theatre through Sept. 28. Tickets from $59, www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com
Maura Johnston can be reached at email@example.com.