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A CurtainUp Review
The Fortress of Solitude

  a lyrical riff that sums up the hope that songs will unite the different worlds of a changing Brooklyn neighborhood.
The Fortress of Solitude
Foreground: Adam Chanler-Berat (Dylan) and Kyle Beltran (Mingus) Rear: Akron Watson, Juson Williams, and Britton Smih (The Subtle Distinctions). Top Rear: Kevin Mambo (former Subtle Distinction lead singer and Mingus's dad Barrett Rude Jr).
(Photo credit: Doug Hamilton)
Jonathan Lethem's 2003 semi-autobiographical best-selling novel The Fortress of Solitude was a potent story about the friendship of two motherless boys — one black, one white — in a gritty but eventually gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood. Its one flaw was a too sprawling, flabby middle. As conceived and directed by Daniel Aukins, with a book by Itamar Moses and music by composer-lyricist Michael Friedman, Lethem's novel has morphed into a potent, 3-decade spanning new musical.

It suffers from the same flaw as the book in that the aptly staged emotionally engaging and steeped in social issues story line loses some of its tight focus somewhere past the midpoint. But don't let that stop you from heading to Lafayette Street. As is typical for the Public Theater's musicals, The Fortress of Solitude is a distinctively original, challenging new work with more strengths than weaknesses.

For starters, there's Michael Friedman's terrific score, delivered with verve by all eighteen cast members. It percolates with story-telling, character building melodies but also resonates with numbers reflecting the soul, punk and hip-hop styles of the '70s, 80s and 90s during which the friendship between Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude evolves.

Dylan (an engaging and believably vulnerable and aggressive Adam Chanler-Berat) and Mingus (Kyle Beltran, a silken voiced young actor ably handling an emotionally complex role) have much in common — a commonality that will deepen and expand but change over the years. Besides both being named for famous musicians (Charles Mingus and Bob Dylan) each lives with a single father deep into his own concerns — Abraham Ebdus(Ken Barnett) with trying to make a living as a book cover artist, and Barrett Rude Jr.(Kevin Mambo) nursing memories of his days as a soul singer with a cocaine habit.

The friendship starts when Dylan is twelve after Rachel (Kristin Sieh) his social activist mom registers him in the still all-black neighborhood school and then abandons him for California and more activism. With no one to help him fend off the local bully Robert (Bryan Teery Henry), Mingus steps in as his protector.

The boys become closer thgough their shared interest in comic book superheroes, music and graffiti . The relationship blossoms amidst the life of the neighborhood so that we also get to know the nuances of other characters: Bryan Teary Henry's Robert turns out to be more than just a bully. . . Kristin Sieh doubles as Mrs. Lomb, a more aggressive, hands on Jewish mother than the aloof and far away Rachel. . . Arthur (David Rossmer) her nerdy son and the only other white boy on the block will go through some extreme changes before the play ends. . . Abby (Rebecca Naomi Jones, who also doubles as the adult Dylan's girlfriend) and Marilla (Carla Duren) are also very much part of the story.

To get all these characters dancing and singing and really cement Dylan and Mingus's friendship is the box and record player at the edge of the stage. The records in that box are used by Dylan to punctuate his narration. And yes, they include some featuring Mingus's father when he was still part of a soul group named Subtle Distinction.

Though the Dylan/Mingus bond develops true to the Dylan lyric about changing times this is not a feel good show but a melancholy, folk operatic saga about reality intruding on hope and a youthful belief in magic. The relationship's forward trajectory clicks into reverse when Dylan passes the admissions test for an elite public high school (Stuyvesant) attended by more middle class and white students. As Dylan's move to a new school sets him on a new path, the neighborhood he will leave behind also undergoes change that will bring brighter futures for some, but not Mingus.

It's after the break in the friendship link starts to crack that some cracks also appear in the fabric of Itamar Moses' libretto. But enough fault finding since there are more shoulders that need to be patted for a job "well done"

One of Daniel Aukin's and his colleagues' cleverest and most enjoyable staging concepts involves the use of the Subtle Distinctions (the terrific Britton Smith, Akron Watson, Juson Williams) as a singing and dancing Greek Chorus. This trio is always in matching suits and shoes and in perfect harmony but their numbers are adapted to the various other musical styles created by Friedman. The way they slide on and off stage showcases some of choreographer Camille A. Brown's best work and adds a wonderful dreamlike quality to the otherwise realistic story line. No wonder Mingus's father broods about his faded past as the group's former head singer.

Speaking of Barrett Rude Junior, his story is actually as interesting as the central friendship plot. In addition to his career regrets and his often dysfunctional interaction with his son, there's Junior's conflict with his father, which brings me to a resounding pat on the back for Andre De Shields. His Reverend Barrett Rude Senior may have a troubled past and not really get enough to do, but when he's on there's no denying the force and charisma of his personality. DeShields also brings strong vocal chords as he launches into a show-stopping "Take Me to the Bridge."

Naturally, good music needs to be effectively orchestrated and played. And so it is by orchestrator John Clancy, sound designer Robert Kaplowitz and the ten-piece orchestra positioned on the upper level of Eugene Lee's set. Without relying on a lot of elaborate props, that set manages to evoke different areas of the Brooklyn neighborhood throughout its changing profile. I won't be a spoiler with details about the set's inclusion of a prison scene, except to repeat that this isn't a feel good story. The mood and cultural changes of what might as aptly be titled Street Scene as The Fortress of Solitude is further supported by by lighting and projection designers Tyler Micoleau and Jeff Sugg and costumer Jessica Pabst.

Imperfect and self-indulgently rambling at two and a half hours as The Fortress of Solitude is, it's nevertheless an eye and ear pleasing, socially relevant folk-sical. Anyone interested in new, non-traditional musical theater won't want to miss it.

The Fortress of Solitude
Book by Itamar Moses
Conceived and directed by Daniel Aukin
Based on novel by Jonathan Letham
. Music & Lyrics: Michael Friedman
Cast: Ken Barnett (Abraham Ebdus); Kyle Beltran (Mingus); Adam Chanler-Berat (Dylan); Andre 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); David Rossmer (Arthur); Conor Ryan (Radio Guy, Mike, Gabe); Kristen Sieh (Rachel Ebdus/Mrs.Lomb); Britton Smith (Subtle Distinction); Brian Tyree Henry (Robert) Akron Watson (Subtle Distinction); Alison Whitehurst (Skater Girl, Liza); and Juson Williams (Subtle Distinction).
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 K. Loukas
Choreography by Camille A. Brown
Stage Manager: Scott Taylor Rollison
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours, includes 1 intermission
Newman Theater and the Public Theater 420 Lafayette St.
From 10/01/14; opening 10/22/14; closing 11/16/14
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 10/17 press preview
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Prelude
  • The One I Remember
  • The Time Keeps Changing
  • (You Gotta) Grab Something/Superman
  • White Boy
  • The Ballad of Barrett Rude St
  • Painting
  • This Little World
  • Take Me to the Bridge
  • High High High School/Fuck You Up
  • I'm Busy Now (So Don't Bother Me)
  • Act Two
    • Prelude
    • Liner Notes
    • If I Had Known Then (What I Know Now)
    • Bothered Blue
    • Take It Baby
    • Who's Calling Me
    • Something
    • This Little World (Rep)
    • The Ballad of Mingus Rude
    • Superman (Rep)
    • Middle Spaces
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