Wednesday, October 22, 2014

'The Fortress of Solitude': Music Is King in Adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's Best-Selling Novel

The Fortress of Solitude Cast Members
Photo by Doug Hamilton

Music is king in the adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s sprawling coming-of-age novel, The Fortress of Solitude, opening tonight at the Public Theater. 

Imagine a really good jukebox musical, but one with all new, creative and original tunes that set the mood and propel the plot, and you will have a sense of the remarkable job that composer/lyricist Michael Friedman and playwright Itamar Moses’s have done. 

Almost completely sung through, The Fortress of Solitude comes jam packed with every style imaginable of music that succeeds in capturing the emotional touchstones of the 70s, 80s, and 90s: rock, rhythm and blues, soul, gospel, folk, punk, funk, pop ballads, and rap. 

Fans of musical theater may well be reminded of Dreamgirls, Hair, Rent, and In The Heights as its progenitors, and you will find yourself bombarded with more cultural references than you’ll come across in a Stephen King novel.

Yet it is a tribute to its creators—not to mention its director Daniel Aukin, choreographer Camille A. Brown, and the outstanding cast—that The Fortress of Solitude earns its place in the sun without feeling like it comes coasting in on easy nostalgia.           

Just as Lin-Manuel Miranda did with In The Heights, where the wonderfully diverse neighborhood of Washington Heights took center stage, the setting of The Fortress of Solitude is of utmost importance to the telling of the stories of two boys—one white, one of mixed race, and both named for musical icons—Dylan (Adam Chanler-Berat), and Mingus (Kyle Beltran).     

Dylan, a quiet nerdy white kid of 12, has been ripped from his roots in monochromatic, monocultural Berkeley, California and has been plunked down in what he finds to be a very scary world of the distinctly downscale Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn.  At his mother’s insistence, the family has relocated in order to keep their son from growing up without having had the experience of living in a culturally, racially, and ethnically mixed community. But Mom (Kristen Sieh), having done her duty to her son’s  upbringing, succumbs to some California dreamin’ of her own and leaves him with his casually inattentive father (Ken Barnett) and to his own devices.    

Act I is largely Dylan’s story, and the musical does a splendid job of capturing the angst of someone living through a painful and lonely early adolescence. He must  figure out how to negotiate the neighborhood and its assorted denizens, including Robert, the requisite bully (Brian Tyree Henry). The closest he has to a friend is the annoying, whiny, and even more nerdy Arthur (David Rossmer), who goes nowhere without his beloved chessboard.

Then Dylan meets Mingus, who has the self-assured survival skills that Dylan craves, and it’s love at first sight. The boys bonding is solidified through a shared appreciation of comic books, a flair for graffiti tagging, and the common experience of being raised without a mother. Both thrive under the watchful eye of Mingus’s father, Barrett Rude Junior (Kevin Mambo), former lead singer for a R&B group called the Subtle Distinctions, who takes Dylan under his wing. 

Gradually, though, things fall apart, not through any quarrel but through the normal drifting apart that occurs when we fail to pay attention. Dylan goes off to the academically elite Stuyvesant High School, leaving Mingus behind to deal with the mean streets, epitomized by the appearance of his malevolent and dangerous grandfather, Barrett Rude Senior (André de Shields). 

With Act II, we have entered the 1990s.  Now grown, Dylan is a successful music critic living back in California. He has returned to Brooklyn for a short visit to solidify a deal to release a collection of the Subtle Distinctions’ music, his way of thanking Mingus’s father. The Brooklyn he returns to, however, is not the one he remembers. Instead, it is in the process of gentrifying, and even though he gets to see some of his old companions, things are just not the same, and he is struck by the truth behind the cliché: “you can’t go home again.” Nothing is frozen in time, and even the left-behinds have moved on to follow their own destinies. 

The transition between Act I and Act II is a bit bumpy. Where Act I is deeply rewarding and emotionally honest, the tone of Act II is more distancing. The adult Dylan is far less interesting than the boy had been, and the emotional core has shifted to the story of Barrett Rude Junior.

That story deserves the spotlight of a full show of its own, especially as it reveals itself through Kevin Mambo’s masterful portrayal of a man on the verge of superstardom who is all but crushed by life’s harsh blows, including the violence, drugs, and racism that seem to be unavoidable within the territory he has inherited. He is trapped, along with his much-loved and now-lost son Mingus.    

There are times when the dropped cultural references pile up more deeply than necessary (I now have an earworm of Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime playing endlessly in my brain), and it can be a challenge to keep up with all of the main stories and side stories that pull you along like a whirlwind, but The Fortress of Solitude is a powerhouse of a musical with richly drawn characters who will stick with you for a very long time.     

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