Many of us may feel a particular song saved our lives — at least, our emotional lives. The song expressed something we never could have otherwise; it helped us discover it within ourselves. The Dallas Theater Center is premiering its latest musical bound for New York’s Public Theatre. The Fortress of Solitude is about two boys in Brooklyn, one white, one black. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says music saves only one of them.
- Front Row review
- TheaterJones review
- Dallas Morning News review
- Texas Monthly review
- KERA radio review:
- Online review:
In Fortress of Solitude — the world-premiere musical adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s best-selling novel –– two city boys bond across their racial divide via graffiti tags and superhero comics. They bond over a magic ring that (maybe) lets them fly. With his music, composer Michael Friedman roots their story in the late ‘70s; it’s his music that makes them really fly while staying grounded in Brooklyn and in American pop culture. Friedman plucks riffs and different styles from hip-hop and rhythm and blues; he repeatedly weaves them into long musical medleys to sweep together characters and themes but also to mark a period. Even a half-attentive ear will pick up the chronology with quotes from the Talking Heads, the Ramones, Wild Cherry.
This is what Lethem does in his novel as well, punctuating his story with the kind of pop reference that can shorthand a moment or elevate it into something generational. But the music detail on a page is nothing like what Friedman can do. For a song about the two boys flying, Friedman — the musical brains behind Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson — cops the piano bass line from the 1966 Motown hit “Cool Jerk” and then slides into a variation of the Al Green 1974 classic, “Take Me to the River.” The result is a big rouser of a chorus number, and the Al Green-gospel fervor kicks in fittingly because one boy’s preacher-grandfather has just arrived on the scene — out on parole. He contributes his own sweaty, bring-down-the-house vehemence to the idea of flight (and black music) as physical and spiritual transcendence.
It’s that kind of smarts that Friedman, director Daniel Aukin and bookwriter Itamar Moses bring to bear in their remarkable adaptation of Lethem’s complex novel. They’ve managed it (mostly) without trash-compacting the story. But they’ve also left out some tell-tale points, points which, taken together, make the musical feel a little too much Broadway and not enough Brooklyn.
Our narrator is Dylan who, thanks to his mother’s ’60s-ish social idealism, is forced to survive as the only white kid on his rundown Brooklyn block. But mom runs off, so the one person who saves Dylan from loneliness and racial belligerence — saves him almost casually — is his young black neighbor Mingus.
To give some idea of director Aukin’s ingenuity in translating this highly literary novel: Fortress is the third musical the Theater Center has presented in four seasons that involves people leaping into the air and defying gravity. In his revisal of It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman, artistic director Kevin Moriarty took the conventional, hope-they-don’t-see-the-wires approach. It wasn’t convincing. In the Peter Pan-update, Fly, director Jeffrey Seller left the rigging and harnesses exposed. It was fun, in a Cirque-du-Soleil, bungee-jumping manner. We got to appreciate the technology instead of trying to pretend it wasn’t there.
But Aukin neither hides the apparatus nor exposes it. He devises something completely different, clever and charming. I won’t reveal it — though it’s hardly some great, stage-magical secret. But the use of projections, bedsheets and gravity boots give the entire scene a home-made aspect — it got delighted, spontaneous applause from the opening-night audience.
At the same time, the scene leaves the question of whether Dylan and Mingus are really flying somewhat beside the point. Flight — and how the magic ring operates — are clearly intended to be metaphoric extensions of the individual characters, just as they are in the novel. It’s music, especially soul music, that makes characters fly here.
It turns out Mingus’ father Barrett Rude, Jr., is a washed-up songwriter — which is why Fortress is drenched with rhythm and blues. Barrett was the lead vocalist for a soul group called the Subtle Distinctions, and the domestic tragedy that ends the first act of Fortress is clearly based on Marvin Gaye’s last days (as are some of Barrett’s songs, like “Take It Baby,” which is powered by the same kind of angry divorce that motivated Gaye’s “Here, My Dear”). But Lethem (and the musical’s creators) don’t opt for an easy copy of real-life. Barrett Rude can’t be simply modeled on Gaye because Gaye was a huge success, while Barrett Rude never was. And one reason Dylan, a true fan, admires Rude’s music so whole-heartedly is precisely its status as a connoisseur’s choice, a cult fave.
We finally hear Barrett’s songs in the second act, and they’re some of Fortress’s shimmering high points. They’re delivered in the midst of liner notes written by the adult Dylan, now a pop music journalist. The whole liner-note scene is a brilliant move in print (Lethem seems to have borrowed his novel’s format from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which has a similar tripartite structure, with a ‘hinge’ chapter between two sections set several years apart).
Onstage, it’s a brave bit of stark cabaret drama, front-and-centering what could have seemed a minor character. But it actually lends Fortress a multi-generational, African-American, pop-culture history and depth it might have lacked otherwise. In this one, long yet condensed scene, we learn the sources of Barrett’s bitterness, we understand his artistry, why he’s worth such attention, and we sense how his music became Dylan’s real mother and father. Dylan will come to feel guilty for leaving Mingus and Brooklyn, escaping to Berkeley for college, but surely his guilt also derives from the fact that, much like white American culture in general, he appropriates and elevates this African-American music as his emotional salvation, while Barrett’s own son just shrugs it off.
So Fortress has terrific music, a compelling story. And it has an exceptional cast, including Kevin Mambo as Barrett and Broadway veteran Andre de Shields getting a star turn and deserving it as Mingus’ disgraced preacher-grandfather. As Mingus, Kyle Beltran has a sweet tenor and falsetto that along with his looks clearly evoke a young Smokey Robinson.
On the negative side, Eugene Lee’s set design — I never thought I’d write such a thing — is pretty generic. Lee is the former designer for the DTC under Adrian Hall and Ken Bryant; he’s a Tony Award-winner. But this set could be used to fit any number of musicals — from The Pajama Game to Bye Bye Birdie. And the first act’s climactic shooting may have been mishandled opening night. It’s more effective dramatically if we don’t know who shot whom, leaving us to wonder during the intermission.
Ultimately, though, the show itself doesn’t succeed. For one thing, the first act is way long, the second act a condensed blur. And I’m not sure the big, summing-up number at the finish — a bookend to the big, all the street-is-a-song number that begins the show — really works.
More significantly, Itamar Moses’ book drains out much of the real danger and ugliness here. It’s characteristic that onstage, the bullying that Dylan faces is more like horseplay. The fact is, Dylan is not the nicest guy, he doesn’t have completely clean hands in all this. But here, he doesn’t really fear or hate these black kids; he’s just Woody-Allen comic-anxious.
The musical’s too-happy-and-bright approach is more apparent with other characters. The two black girls on Dylan’s block, for instance, are comically indifferent to his plight; in the book, they are cold and uncaring — they’re oblivious, they’re above him. And the musical’s soft tone extends to minor white characters as well: One kid is a classic nerd onstage, funny and pathetic. In the book, he’s a full-bore, parasitic creep, eventually becoming a satire of the developer as vampire.
We could chalk all this up to the West Side Story factor: Isn’t this what Broadway has always done when it comes to violence, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll — but especially race? Make things either nice-nice or, at most, poignant? No, not anymore. Musicals like Ragtime, Sweeney Todd and Spring Awakening have taught Broadway it doesn’t have to sweeten violence or dance around race. In Lethem’s novel, people die, people like Mingus are ravaged by crack — and not by powder cocaine, which is the party drug we see here.
It’s a class and racial distinction: Crack is the ghetto stuff that, typically, gets harder sentences than the ones doled out to ballerinas or Wall Streeters doing a little sniff. Among many things, Fortress is about the gentrification of black neighborhoods — but it’s also about the drug epidemic that first wiped them out, making them easy pickings. It’s revealing that Mingus is actually a somewhat ominous, hard-to-figure character in the novel; in contrast, Kyle Beltran’s angelic voice and looks never really change. Even as we hear the litany of charges and convictions piled up on him, he mostly seems a young man who’s a little lost, who made a couple of bad choices. He’s never the wasted, hopeless wreck his father became.
Why could Fortress use this kind of harsher edge? Because we can’t fully cherish how high the boys fly, what Dylan’s escape and eventual acceptance of his past, what all that means without it. They stand in contrast to the void of anger and despair that threatened to engulf them both.
We feel joy — and loss — more when we know the pain and guilt that came before.