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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'The Fortress of Solitude' - Youthful Friends Circa 1975

Kyle Beltran, Carla Duren, Rebecca Naomi Jones, and Adam Chanler-Berat in The Fortress of Solitude
(©Doug Hamilton)

The musical sounds of the late-1960s and through the mid-1970s come invigoratingly to life in The Fortress of Solitude, which opened last night at the Public Theater. Composer Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Love’s Labour’s Lost) has written his most ambitious---and lengthy---score to date, and it’s a fantastic mixture of R&B, funk, folk, and rap. Unfortunately, this terrific work is all in service of a show that’s still finding its way, and though, the music and performances make for some dynamic moments on stage, the musical itself is an underwhelming affair of unrewarding story-telling.

Based on Jonathan Lethem’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, the show tells the story of Dylan, who grows up from pre-teen years through young adulthood in the racially diverse neighborhood in Gowanus Brooklyn in the mid-1970s. He and his dad (Ken Barnett), a painter who makes ends meet by designing book jackets for fantasy novels, find themselves abandoned there after Dylan’s mom, who instigated the move, leaves them to pursue free-spirit dreams in Berkeley.

After his mom’s disappearance, Dylan (Adam Chanler-Berat) turns to the record collection that she left and his comic books (the show’s title comes from the name of Superman’s arctic retreat) for solace, and these possessions spark a friendship with a kid his age, Gus (Kyle Beltran), who shares his love of superheroes and whose father Barrett (Kevin Mambo) happens to be one of the unheralded singers that Dylan’s mom admired. Tellingly both young men have also been named after musicians their folks admired, Bob Dylan and Charles Mingus, respectively.

It’s an unlikely pairing, not just because of the difference in race (Dylan is white and Gus is black), but also, seemingly, temperamentally. Dylan’s a nervous, introverted nerd. Gus is extroverted and streetwise; a graffiti artist with the tag “Dose.”

One other item that Dylan’s mom left behind (her wedding ring that she left on the spindle of a turntable) solidifies Dylan and Gus’ friendship, albeit in a surprising way. It imbues them, seemingly, with the ability to fly, metaphorically escaping all of the problems they face in their homes. The exchange of the ring also leads the musical and their relationship down a homoerotic path. When Gus’ dad finds them horsing together around under sheets in Gus’ room, he says, “Look I don’t care what you get up to in here. You just lucky it was me and not your granddad walked in just now. Get a lock for this door, boy.”

But Itamar Moses’ book, which until this point had gracefully charted both characters’ paths, their families’ lives, and those of others in the neighborhood, never returns to whether the ring sparked any other feelings between the two. Instead, it begins to formulaically unfurl to show what pulls the two of them apart, and then, in the second act, the musical perfunctorily takes audiences through their lives as adults.

Director Daniel Aukin (who also conceived the musical) has staged the piece so that it shifts fluidly back and forth through time, and he’s greatly assisted by scenic designer Eugene Lee’s flexible set, which places the band on an ironwork bridge above the action. Another chief feature of Lee’s design a wall of doors that represent the various houses in the neighborhood, and, combined with Lee’s decision to leave the theater’s brick walls exposed, this piece terrifically communicates the sense of the gritty world in which Dylan and Gus are growing up. Lee’s design can also beautifully transform into more magical places, often thanks to Tyler Micoleau’s angular lighting design that can astutely use shadow while also filling the space in otherworldly colors.

What Aukin’s work does not do, however, is illuminate the murkier sections of the musical (the resolution with the ring is particularly mystifying) or mitigate its less elegant sections. This is particularly true during the opening of the show’s second half while Dylan’s girlfriend (ably played and sung by Rebecca Naomi Jones) delivers a musical monologue that tells theatergoers what has happened as Dylan has moved into adulthood.

Chanler-Berat traces this character’s journey with the off-beat charm that has become his hallmark thanks to shows like Next to Normal and Peter and the Starcatcher His work is well-matched by Beltran’s edgier, moodier turn as Gus, and by Mambo’s haunting and haunted performance as Gus’ father. In addition, Mambo suavely executes some of choreographer Camille A. Brown’s smooth moves when the show flashes back to the man’s short-lived heyday as a performer. Brown’s best work, though, comes for several rousing ensemble numbers that capture the energy and diversity of the neighborhood (much like Jessica Pabst’s fine period costumes).

Alongside these turns there are also notable ones from David Rossmer, who plays the neighborhood geek who’s actually more awkward than Dylan, and Brian Tyree Henry makes a neighborhood bully both menacing and a little sweet. And as Gus’ grandfather, a disgraced preacher, André De Shields, delivers a formidable performance.

Impressively, De Shields doesn’t sound much different as he forcefully offers up the gospel-infused “Take Me to the Bridge” than he did when he opened in The Wiz in 1975, and it’s one of the many exhilarating moments back in time that Fortress of Solitude offers. It’s hard not to wish, though, that such excitement were more sustained throughout the production.

---- Andy Propst

The Fortress of Solitude plays at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street). For more information and tickets, visit: publictheater.org.

'The Belle of Amherst' - An Amiable Visit with Emily Dickinson

Joely Richardson in The Belle of Amherst
(©Carol Rosegg)

Theatergoers have the unique opportunity to spend some time with the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, courtesy of William Luce’s biographical play, The Belle of Amherst, which opened last night in director Steve Cosson’s agreeable revival at the Westside Theatre.

The show premiered in 1976 and starred Julie Harris, who picked up one of her six Tony Awards for her performance, went on to tour in the piece, and eventually preserved it on film for PBS. This new production stars Joely Richardson, and she’s delivering a shimmering, fluttery performance that indicates that perhaps one of the reasons Dickinson remained so shut off from the world around was the fact that she had some sort of social anxiety disorder.

It’s an intelligent, insightful choice, which has both its benefits and its pitfalls. On the one hand, it gives Luce’s play, which provides all of the necessary facts about Dickinson’s life along with a healthy smattering of her poetry, a certain urgency. Stories, pieces of her writing, and even a recipe come tumbling out of Richardson’s mouth as Dickinson entertains the audience, her visitors in her comfortable Massachusetts home (scenic designer Antje Ellermann provides the spartanly elegant interior that puts Dickinson’s parlor and study side by side).

At the same time, though, the speed of Richardson’s delivery means that there come points when it’s difficult to not wish that she were taking it just a bit more slowly so that one had a fraction of a moment to savor Dickinson’s verse or a shrewd, gently wry observation that she shares about herself, her family, or the world at large. Similarly, the clip Richardson’s keeping in the show caused her to stumble over her words at a press performance.

As she settles into a run, it’s pretty certain that such slips will disappear, and what will remain is her carefully layered performance that’s simultaneously demure and coquettish (to achieve this in the staid winter white dress that costume designer William Ivey Long has created is in itself an achievement); intensely focused and slightly scattered; and self-assured and marvelously vulnerable.

Richardson’s performance is ably supported by both David Weiner’s lighting design, which helps audiences keep track of shifts in time, and by Daniel Kluger’s sound design, which sensitively indicates the world just outside of this home, where theatergoers will find themselves thoroughly charmed by their hostess.

---- Andy Propst

The Belle of Amherst at the Westside Theatre (407 West 43rd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: belleofamherstplay.com.

'Found' - A Musical Olio

Orville Mendoza, Christina Anthony, Danny Pudi,Nick Blaemire, Molly Pope, Sandy Rustin, and Andrew Call in Found
(©Kevin Thomas Garcia)

A clever and potentially poignant idea gets stretched to the breaking point in the new musical Found, which Atlantic Theater Company opened last night at its Linda Gross Theater in Chelsea.

The show’s based on the Found magazines and books by Davy Rothbart, which he first imagined after a personally disastrous day. He’d been fired and mugged, and then, when he got to his car, it looked like he had gotten a ticket. Actually, it wasn’t a ticket stuck to his windshield, but rather a note, from a woman named Amber, who was calling out her boyfriend for sleeping with someone else. She’d just put it on the wrong car. It was an “Ah, ha!” moment for Rothbart who started collecting other bits of paper from the street or other sources, seeing each scrap as being a tiny window into another person’s life.

Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree’s book for the musical Found charts Davy’s path as one of the entrepreneurs behind the same-titled magazine. He’s joined by his two roommates, Mikey D (Daniel Everidge) and Denise (Barrett Wilbert Weed), who discovers an unexpected romantic pull toward Davy as they work together. Unfortunately, the arrival of an ambitious young television producer, Kate (Betsy Morgan), throws a wrench in Denise’s aspirations for a closer relationship with Davy and also derails their work on the magazine itself.

It’s actually classic musical theater stuff, but then, there’s the other side of the book, which brings the notes that Davy and others find to life. Sometimes this happens as snarky asides as members of the ensemble pop in to deliver the text as ironic subtext. At other moments, the notes take on weird and disruptive lives of their own. Late in the first act, there’s an extended sequence recreating a stage play about the fictional Revolutionary war hero Johnny Tremain and the second act opens with a production number about cats.

In musical theater terms, such interruptions, which are kind of charming at first, end up making the show, which has been directed with unstinting energy by co--book writer Overtree, feel more like a revue than a book musical. In non-theatrical terms, Found ultimately comes to feel a bit like being stuck in a musical Tumblr feed with no way out.

The effect of the scattershot writing is that it undermines any emotional involvement that theatergoers might have with the central characters, which is unfortunate because they brought to life with immediacy and zest. Blaemire delights as he makes Davy hiply suave and goofily nerdy. Morgan’s got sweet coolness down pat, and the archness and longing that Weed brings to her turn as Denise is simply lovely.

The performers also do a bang-up job with Eli Bolin’s pop-rich score, which has elements of R&B, country-western, Latin, and even a little musical theater, in it. What might be most impressive about Bolin’s work is the effectiveness of his settings for the ‘found’ text. He finds beautiful ways of setting phrases and sentences that would seem to defy musicalization into his melodies.

The collage-like nature of the show is mirrored in scenic designer David Korins’ handsome unit set, which has a cohesiveness that Found itself lacks. The design, often sumptuously lit by Justin Townsend, also provides a great backdrop for some excellent projections by Darrel Maloney.

At one point, Davy says of his collection, “I have hundreds of these notes, some funny, some heartbreaking, but they all make you feel less alone and more human.” And for a while in the musical, theatergoers understand what he means, but there comes a point in Found when the overlaying of the jottings on the central story ceases to illuminate and becomes mere gimmickry.

---- Andy Propst

Found at plays at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: atlantictheater.org.

'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' - Stunning Stagecraft

Mercedes Herrero, Alex Sharp (above) Richard Hollis and Jocelyn Bioh in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
(©Joan Marcus)

Director Marianne Elliott’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, disconcerts at the outset. Flashes of light reveal what looks to be a young man and a large furry thing, seemingly dead. After the second or third flash of light, theatergoers can tell that a garden fork (a smallish pitchfork) is lodged in the beast. The first section of the show deals with how the teenager, Christopher (a remarkable Alex Sharp), unravels what happened to the animal, a dog named Wellington, and perhaps more important, how his amateur sleuthing unravels secrets that his family and neighbors have kept from him.

Elliott’s bracing start to the show serves a twofold purpose. First, it does grab theatergoers and it’s is one of the most energetic and visceral beginnings for a new play on Broadway in a long while. Second, it’s the director’s (and her excellent design team’s) first foray into helping audiences understand Christopher’s mind: he suffers from Asperger syndrome, which is considered a high-functioning form of autism. Throughout the play, as Christopher first investigates what might have happened to the dog, and later as he takes a solo journey to London, Elliott, working with lighting designer Paule Constable, video designer Finn Ross, and sound designer Ian Dickinson, finds intriguing and disorienting ways of allowing theatergoers to perceive the world through Christopher’s eyes. Often it’s a collision of sounds and images, which blazingly transform the black cube in which scenic designer Bunny Christie has set the action, that disorient and discomfit.

Equally key in helping theatergoers journey into Christopher’s worldview is playwright Simon Stephen’s lucid, but still jagged, adaptation of Mark Haddon’s acclaimed novel, and the work of choreographers Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, who at times deploy the ensemble surrounding Sharp in stylized and almost ritualized ways, so that even the people around Christopher appear to be askew. The combined work of director, choreographers, and designers, too, can make Christopher’s fantasy life vivid and often dazzlingly tangible.

And while there’s little doubting that the stagecraft at work in Curious Incident is impeccable and that Sharp’s astonishingly intense, remarkably nuanced, and physically rigorous performance represents a genuinely thrilling Broadway bow, this artistry is found in a strangely bifurcated play.

During the first half of the show, while theatergoers learn about Christopher, his family and the events surrounding the killing of Wellington, Curious Incident resembles a sort of quaint suburban mystery drama. Fine performances abound, including Ian Barford’s angry, wounded, macho and sensitive turn as Christopher’s dad, and Francesca Faridany’s airy and, at times, beatific, rendering of Christopher’s teacher. Similarly, Helen Carey delivers a smile-inducing performance as one of the neighbors, a sweet, wise, and somewhat needy older woman to whom the young man turns for help.

In the second half, though, as Christopher plunges headlong, all on his own, to London, the play begins to resemble something more of an after school special, particularly as the family drama intensifies and his chances for moving forward academically seem to be squashed. And, then, when Curious Incident takes a turn for the meta (perhaps everything we’ve been watching is part of a stage adaptation of a story that Christopher wrote about his experiences), the impact of everything that has preceded feels somehow diminished.

Ultimately, Elliott’s stagecraft and Sharp’s extraordinary performance are enough to ensure that, overall, Curious Incident delivers a exhilarating jolt at the theater, and though there are some dramaturgical issues at hand, there’s also some exceptional artistry to be found at the Barrymore.

---- Andy Propst

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time plays at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (243 West 47th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.curiousonbroadway.com.

'While I Yet Live' - Beautifully Performed Family Drama

Sharon Washington and S. Epatha Merkerson in While I Yet Live
(©James Leynse)

Billy Porter’s new semi-autobiographical play, While I Yet live, tackles a lot of familiar territory: from religious fervency and hypocrisy to a gay teen’s learning to accept himself in an era before Will & Grace and the broadening of the gay rights movement. And yet while theatergoers might feel as though they’re heard or seen much of what’s contained in the play before, there’s something marvelously compelling about it, thanks to a sterling performance from S. Epatha Merkerson and the unstintingly fine work of the ensemble surrounding her.

Porter’s comedy-laced drama, that awkwardly moves into the realm of magic realism for a bit, centers on a quintet of women, all of whom are based on the relatives with whom Porter grew up. At the center of the play is Maxine (Merkerson), who has coped with a undiagnosable degenerative physical disease since birth. As the play opens, she’s visiting her mother Gertrude (Lillias White) with her husband Vernon (a frighteningly intense Kevyn Morrow) and her two children, late teenager Calvin (Larry Powell) and almost teen Tonya (Sheria Irving).

Merkerson’s performance as this matriarch, who has to come to terms with not only her son’s gayness but also how her faith may or may not be letting her down, grounds the production from start to finish. Technically, it’s a beaut from the moment she enters and hobbles across the upstairs portion of scenic designer James Noone’s beautiful recreation of a middle class home. As the disease ravages Maxine’s body, Merkerson brings the woman’s physical deterioration to life with precision; the hobble becomes lurchy, and slight tremors turn convulsive, and there are times when it’s rough not to wince on the character’s behalf.

But it’s not only Merkerson’s ability to bring the woman’s disease to life that impresses. She also delivers a performance that’s sunny, steely, warm, and wounded, and above all, loving. Early on she inspires laughter as Maxine gossips with an old family friend, Eva (played with quiet dignity by Sharon Washington), about the most recent scandals at church, and late in the play, when Maxine describes the journey she’s had to take as she’s come to understand her son’s gayness, a gentle grittiness takes over Merkerson’s performance and it’s simply breathtaking.

An equally fine performance comes from Irving as Tonya. Not only does the actress effectively and convincingly morph as the character ages from pre-high schooler to aspiring graduate student, she also delivers the comic and commentary-laden monologues that precede each scene with a perfect blend of snark and sagacity. As Calvin, curiously the most-underwritten of the show’s three principal characters, Powell gives a turn that’s appropriately angry, hurt, and self-involved, and as Maxine’s mother and aunt, respectively, White along with Elain Graham, deliver a pair of finely crafted performances.

There’s a gentle ease to director Sheryl Kaller’s staging, which allows theatergoers to feel as if they are flies on the wall as roughly fifteen years of this family’s life unfolds, and both costume designer ESOSA and lighting designer Kevin Adam’s contributions add verity to the action, while also supporting the play’s flights outside of reality.

---- Andy Propst

While I Yet Live plays at the Duke on 42nd Street (229 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: primarystages.org.