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Jonathan Lethem‘s bestselling 2003 coming-of-age novel, The Fortress of Solitude, has been adapted into an off-Broadway musical with only fitfully successful results. This co-production by the Dallas Theater Center and NYC’s Public Theater is uncommonly ambitious in its scope and execution and boasts plenty of talent both on and offstage. But despite the strengths of Michael Friedman‘s score, which features influences including soul, doo-wop, R&B, hip-hop and rock, the sprawling narrative never comes into clear focus. With a multitude of characters and a story that ranges across two decades, the material doesn’t quite cohere into a satisfying whole.
The first part is set in ’70s era, pre-gentrification Brooklyn and centers on the relationship between two teens named after musical icons: the white, Jewish, nerdy Dylan (Adam Chanler-Berat), son of an artist father (Ken Barnett) and social activist mother (Kristen Sieh) who abandons her family; and the black Mingus (Kyle Betran). The latter’s father is Barrett Rude Junior (Kevin Mambo), a cocaine-addicted former soul singer who years earlier briefly hit second-tier stardom as lead singer of the group the Subtle Distinctions.
The boys’ friendship is fueled by their mutual love of comic books and, in particular, Mingus’ protection of Dylan from Robert (Brian Tyree Henry), a bully who torments him unmercifully. Other characters figuring in their orbit are local girls Lala (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Marilla (Carla Duren), and Dylan’s chess-loving friend Arthur (David Rossmer), who advises him on navigating life as a Jewish boy in the nearly all-black neighborhood.
And then there’s Mingus’ grandfather, Barrett Rude Senior (the great Andre De Shields), a disgraced former pastor recently released from prison whose return to his family triggers a tragedy that has ramifications for one of the central characters well into the next decades.
The book by Itamar Moses (Bach at Leipzig) only briefly touches on such aspects of the novel as its magical realism and the sexual experimentation between the two boys. More problematically, it fails to render the convoluted narrative with sufficient clarity. The show loses steam in the 1990s-set second act, when Dylan has moved to Berkeley, California and becomes a music writer. Even as Mingus’ life has taken a distinctly downward path, Dylan attempts to resurrect Barrett Jr.’s career by persuading a record company to release a box set of his vintage recordings.
With its nearly constant flow of musical numbers — many of them snippets rather than full songs — Daniel Aukin‘s fluid staging gives the evening a propulsive sweep. The accomplished and eclectic score by Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) gives life to the characters in ways that the narrative often fails to do, wittily interpolating familiar lyrics and riffs from well-known songs of the era, most overtly Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music.”
The performances are consistently fine; young leads Chanler-Berat (Peter and the Starcatcher) and Beltran deliver soulful turns and Mambo is deeply moving as the emotionally damaged father. Also terrific is Jones (American Idiot) in the dual roles of Lala and the adult Dylan’s girlfriend, Abby. Camille A. Brown‘s choreography is energetic if not particularly inventive, while Eugene Lee‘s set design is disappointingly generic, failing to sufficiently conjure the run-down Brooklyn neighborhood.
The Fortress of Solitude is that rare musical based on a novel rather than, as is so often now the case, a familiar Hollywood title. As such, it deserves credit for serious ambition on the part of its creators. But despite its often impressive elements, it never emerges as fully satisfying theater.
Cast: Adam Chanler-Berat, Kyle Beltran, Kevin Mambo, Andre De Shields, Ken Barnett, Carla Duren, Brian Tyree Henry, Rebeca Naomi Jones, David Rossmer, Kristen Sieh
Book: Itamar Moses, conceived by Daniel Aukin
Music and lyrics: Michael Friedman
Director: Daniel Aukin
Choreographer: Camille A. Brown
Set designer: Eugene Lee
Costume designer: Jessica Pabst
Lighting designer: Tyler Micoleau
Sound designer: Robert Kaplowitz
Projection designer: Jeff Sugg
Presented by the Public Theater and Dallas Theater Center
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Portia de Rossi
James Gordon Meek