'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.