New York — But don’t forget the songs
That made you cry
And the songs that saved your life
Those lines from the song “Rubber Ring,” by the seminal British rock band The Smiths, kept reverberating in my head while watching the unfolding events of The Fortress of Solitude, the riveting new musical recently extended at The Public Theater. The show, a collaboration between the Public and The Dallas Theater Center and based on a semi-autobiographical novel by New York writer Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn) foregrounds the power of music to fire the imagination, inspire dreams, offer emotional comfort, and soundtrack loss and loneliness. With a score featuring elements of soul, funk, rap, punk, New Wave and classic Broadway, Fortress, which world-premiered at the Dallas Theater Center in March and features much of the same creative talents on and off-stage, creates a mesmerizing portrait of the effects of family disarray, racial gentrification, the drug trade, privilege and appropriation, while singing a gorgeous love song to imagination, creativity, and the need to make a mark on the world, to be remembered.
Fortress, book by Itamar Moses, music and lyrics by Michael Friedman and conception and direction by Daniel Aukin (Bad Jews), is primarily set on Dean Street, a block in Gowanus, Brooklyn, where in the ‘70s, young Dylan (Adam Chandler-Berat) is the one of the only white kids in the neighborhood, thanks to his mother’s (Kristen Sieh) hippie idealism. Dylan is bullied by local tough guy Robert Woolfolk (Brian Tyree Henry), who dismissively calls him “white boy” and “borrows” his money while intimidating a nerdy Jewish neighbor, Arthur (David Rossmer). Robert and two neighborhood girls, Lala and Marilla (Rebecca Naomi Jones and Carla Duren) tease Dylan about his absent mother, who dragged the family to Brooklyn and then left for Berkeley, California, with no defined return date. Dylan is lonely, angry and confused, with no seeming allies, not even his father Abraham (Ken Barnett), an aspiring painter and filmmaker who makes ends meet by illustrating sci-fi and fantasy book covers. Abraham is too busy trying to survive and cope with the loss of his wife to pay attention to his floundering son, who sings first plaintively, then desperately about how he’s “trying to find the beat” in “The Time Keeps Changing”.
Life improves for Dylan when, almost casually, he is rescued from yet another encounter with Robert by Mingus (the charismatic Kyle Beltran) a popular yet also motherless kid who dreams of a future as an artist, expressed through his defiant tagging of buildings and subways with his graffiti tag, “Dose.” The boys bond over a shared love of superhero comic books and vinyl albums, both sharing a musical legacy left by absent (both literal and figurative) parents. Dylan’s mother named him after the legendary folk singer and left him a cherished box of beloved albums, while Mingus’s dad, Barrett Rude Junior (a stunning Kevin Mambo) is a faded former soul almost-star who gave his son the name of the influential jazz musician and used to sing with a vocal group called The Subtle Distinctions (Britton Smith, Akron Watson, and Juson Williams). Albums by the Distinctions are among the most-played platters left for Dylan by his mother, and the group appears shadowed on stage as a sort of doo-wopping Greek chorus, with gorgeous harmonies and finger-snapping choreography (by Camille A. Brown).
Dylan and Mingus form a bond across the divides of race (Mingus is biracial), class and, although they don’t yet know it, prospects for social mobility. With the optimism and enthusiasm of youth, the boys dream of writing their names across the sky (or at least tagging a fast-moving elevated train) and flying away to their own sanctuary of the show’s title. And with the power of a “magic” ring, the wedding ring left to Dylan by his mother, the boys may actually have found a way to escape from Dean Street. The powerful “(You Gotta) Grab Something/Superman” is staged simply yet imaginatively, with the talents of scenic designer Eugene Lee, lighting designer Tyler Micoleau and projection designer Jeff Sugg combining to create a real feeling of flight, and potential freedom. Perhaps they actually can, as Junior sings, save themselves, and each other, just like Superman.
But the paths for these two very different boys are destined to diverge, a split prefaced by two significant events. Dylan has been accepted to the elite Stuyvesant High School, taking him away from both the “zoos” of Gowanus, and his buddy Mingus, who will be left behind. Meanwhile, Mingus has troubles of his own, as his grandfather, Barrett Rude Senior (Broadway legend Andre DeShields), has been newly paroled from prison and released to the care of his sullen son. A former preacher with a predilection for young girls, Senior is trouble masquerading as redemption, made clear in his clarion call, “The Ballad of Barrett Rude Sr.”
DeShields’s diminutive size detracts in no way from the undiminished power of his marvelous voice and preacher’s cadences, but his furious son doesn’t want his dad’s advice or interference, and an explosion becomes inevitable, with collateral damage as an unavoidable consequence. These two situations converge in “High High High School/Fuck You Up,” as Dylan’s plan to attend Stuyvesant to please his father and the conflict between Junior and Senior coalesce in a violent Act I climax, a scene redolent of the real-life death of legendary soul superstar Marvin Gaye. Things have changed for good on Dean Street, and that fortress seems farther away than ever.
Act II finds Dylan, now a music journalist in, yes, Berkeley, looking back on the Dean Street he left behind through the songs of his old friend’s dad. The quest to engage a record company’s interest in releasing a box set of Junior’s music leads Dylan back to Dean Street for the first time in years, forcing him to confront the fallout of that last night at Mingus’ house and his own life choices. A musical-within-a-musical about Junior’s abortive career is a significant portion of the show’s second act, and composer/lyricist Friedman is in rare form, creating songs that manage to sound both vintage and original, full of authentic Motown smoothness and Stax grit in equal measure.
Mambo’s voice is particularly astonishing on “Bothered Blue,” the one big hit Junior attained that marked both the beginning and end of his bid for musical immortality. The song, a cry of rage and pain at the destruction of black life, evokes Marvin Gaye yet again, sounding like a lost track from his seminal album “What’s Going On.” It also clues the audience in to Mingus’s fate, as Dylan finally reconnects with his incarcerated friend and confronts the sense of betrayal and guilt that may be underlying his desire to find a new audience for the songs of his childhood friend’s father. But in “The Ballad of Mingus Rude,” Beltran’s soaring voice tracks Mingus’s transition through a series of prisons, starkly illustrating how far apart the old friends have grown and perhaps how inevitable their separate fates always were.
Fortress of Solitude sanitizes the sharp realities of race and class in Lethem’s novel a bit, from Junior’s use and Mingus’ sale of powdered cocaine when it was the cheaper crack that ravaged neighborhoods like Dean Street, to making former nerd Arthur’s eventual takeover of the neighborhood by buying buildings and businesses cheaply more humorous (Gowanus has become ‘Boerum Hill’) than predatory. But overall, this story of two boys bound together by dreams and torn apart by reality flies high on the strength of powerful performances, a mesmerizing pastiche of songs, and a moving story of fathers and sons, loss and connection, and the idea that music can be a form of salvation, with the power to transport us to our own respective fortresses; those that, after we have been ravaged by real life, can only exist in our imaginations.
> Read our review from the Dallas Theater Center production
> Read our interview with Michael Friedman and Itamar Moses