“The Fortress of Solitude” begins with a sensory overload of song…the sounds of a Brooklyn block, circa 1975. That sets the tone for this energetic, inspired, heartbreaking and sometimes rushed and overwhelming stage adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s sprawling coming-of-age novel, centered on a friendship between a white boy named Dylan and a black boy named Mingus.
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A different song
But if they all fit together
Then they can’t be wrong,”
…sing a character named Rachel and various other members of the extraordinary 18-member cast, at the start of a musical that fills the stage at the Public Theater with pop, punk, funk, rap, and especially soul — a brilliant exercise in musical pastiche by Michael Friedman, best known as the composer of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, but deserving of admiration as well for his work with The Civilians.
Rachel has named her son after Bob Dylan, and moved him and her husband Abraham, a painter and book cover designer, to Dean Street, a white family in a neighborhood that is then primarily black and known as Gowanus, soon to be gentrified and renamed Boerum Hill. The move to her is a kind of social experiment, a social statement; she sings:
The block is the kind of space the world should be
A better America than the one that’s on TV
Then she abandons her family.
Dylan Ebdus, who is Rachel’s son and the narrator of all that is to follow, meets his neighbor, a boy of his same age who is also motherless, and also named after a musical hero – Charles Mingus – and also the son of an artist, a once-great lead singer of a soul group known as the Subtle Distinctions. The friendship between Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude begins with Mingus artfully protecting Dylan from a neighborhood bully. But they share an interest in music and in comic book Superheroes, and Mingus turns Dylan on to graffiti tagging and to dj scratching (As he manipulates the record, we hear the live singers sing as if they’re recorded.) Thanks to a ring Dylan’s mother left him, they also fly in the sky like Superheroes — or maybe they do.
At this point, theatergoers who have read Lethem’s 2003 novel have a clear advantage. In the novel, a homeless man hands Dylan and Mingus a magic ring that gives them super powers, the ability to fly and to be invisible. The ring figures prominently in the plot of the 500-page novel including a tragic fantasy-filled climax. Playwright Itamar Moses, the book writer for the 150-minute musical, has retained the ring, but altered the story around it, and pared its significance. The average theatergoer will not be sure the ring has any magical powers at all or indeed what it means; they’ll know only that it’s important in some way (perhaps as a metaphor?)
That in a nutshell gets at a problem with the musical version of “The Fortress of Solitude.” The creative team realizes that its adaptation does not have the time or the space to contain the full complexity of the novel. Yet the team, led by director Daniel Aukin, who conceived of the show a decade ago, seems committed to giving us as much of the novel as possible. The results can make us feel as if we’re being rushed through the proceedings, especially once Dylan is accepted into Stuyvesant High School – a specialized high school (my alma mater!) that is located in Manhattan – and he and Mingus go on their very separate paths. There are moments on stage that can feel like a secret coded message to the people who’ve read the book.
The occasional lack of clarity, however, does not ultimately undermine “The Fortress of Solitude” – at least it did not for me – thanks largely to two aspects of the show.
First, the 18 musical numbers are tuneful, electric and eclectic, and often cleverly staged. The mash-ups are a delight: At one point we hear both snatches of Wild Cherry’s 1976 hit “Play that funky music white boy” and “Nava Nagila,” the number one song on the Bar Mitzvah circuit. (Most of the music is original, in the style of 70’s songs, but Friedman does a lot of sampling.) We understand that this music is central to the lives of the characters – they say again and again how it saves them; it evokes moments of glory and of love – but it works not just as theme but as entertainment.
Above all, what makes the musical so worthwhile are the performances. It’s hard to picture a better choice of casting than Kyle Beltran as Mingus and Adam Chanler-Berat as Dylan. Both are adorable as young boys without being cloying, and both age persuasively over the quarter-century span of the musical into distinctly different young men: Beltran’s hopeful, cool countenance and angelic voice transform into the hardened face of a prison inmate just trying to get by; Chanler-Berat’s passive cipher full of wonder becomes a bespectacled music writer living in California, who is full of doubt, guilt, indecision. There is something almost unbearably touching about both their eager/awkward first steps toward connection and the chasm that grows between them.
Dylan is the show’s center – he is the narrator, it seems told from his point of view, his character in the semi-autobiographical novel was the obvious stand-in for the author. It would be too easy to relegate many of the other characters to extras in Dylan’s story, yet this doesn’t happen often, because of the stand-out performances. For example, the relatively small part of Mingus’ grandfather, a preacher jailed because of his penchant for underage girls, is played to the hilt by Andre De Shields, who enters like James Brown in the rip-roaring “Ballad of Barrett Rude, Sr.” Kevin Mambo is superb, because so understated, as Mingus’ father Barrett Rude Junior, the soulful, sexy singer who’s become just a regular guy, drugs and the TV his only audience. We see him in flashbacks fronting for the soulful Subtle Distinction, a suave, pitch-perfect trio made up of Britton Smith, Akron Watson and Juson Williams.
A special shout-out to David Rossmer as Arthur Lomb, the chess-playing nerd of the block who grows up to be a neighborhood entrepreneur and landlord. Rossmer apparently got into an accident shortly before the performance I saw, but the show must go on, despite a most visible splint on his injured hand.
If the design team offers only an abstract hint of Brooklyn – brick walls, a row of poorly painted doors – the show still manages to capture the agitation and confusion and menace and occasional warmth of a Brooklyn block. My favorite single image – because it explains an entire world in one hilarious instant – was the moment when Dylan first returns for a visit, and passes by a young white man carrying a baby in a sling and talking on a cell phone.
“It looks…really different around here,” Dylan says.
The Fortress of Solitude
Book by Itamar Moses and music and lyrics by Michael Friedman based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem
Conceived and directed by Daniel Aukin,
Scenic design by Eugene Lee, costume design by Jessica Pabst, lighting design by Tyler Micoleau, sound design by Robert Kaplowitz, projection design by Jeff Sugg, hair and wig design by Leah Loukas.
Cast: Ken Barnett (Abraham Ebdus); Kyle Beltran (Mingus); Adam Chanler-Berat (Dylan); André De Shields (Senior); Carla Duren (Marilla); Stephane Duret (Swing); Rebecca Naomi Jones (Lala, Abby); Jahi Kearse(Raf, Henry, Desmond, Jared); Kevin Mambo (Junior); Malaiyka Reid (Swing); Noah Ricketts (Swing); David Rossmer(Arthur); Conor Ryan (Radio Guy, Mike, Gabe); Kristen Sieh (Rachel Ebdus);Britton Smith (Subtle Distinction); Brian Tyree Henry (Robert) Akron Watson (Subtle Distinction); Alison Whitehurst (Skater Girl, Liza); and Juson Williams (Subtle Distinction).
“The Fortress of Solitude” is scheduled to run through November 2.
Oct 23 Update: The musical has been extended to November 16.