Dallas — “Those songs saved my life,” says one of two young boys at the heart of The Fortress of Solitude, the Dallas Theater Center’s compelling musical adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s sprawling coming-of-age novel. And he’s not kidding: for these two friends, one black and one white, growing up on a tough Brooklyn street in the 1970s with their mothers gone and their fathers not paying much attention, the songs of that time are one way of “keeping it together”—of making a space apart, a “patch of green” they can stand in, safe (or at least safer) from the struggles about class, race, money, parents, friends that fracture their everyday world.
Should we still be surprised when a musical—this one having its world premiere at the Wyly Theatre in a co-production with The Public Theater in New York—tells a story that packs a gut-deep punch, that lifts us up one moment and breaks our hearts the next? Sometimes the American story is told better in words and music, not in editorials and essays; and with playwright Itamar Moses (Bach at Leipzig) and composer/lyricist Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), we have two young artists at the top of their game. This is a story that will certainly make you laugh, probably make you cry…and definitely make you think.
“La, la, la la la,” sing a pair of little black girls on the street, dancing along to a pop tune on the radio. Other singers, each with their own story, add layers to the sound: a white girl on skates, a store owner, a preacher, a soul singer dreaming of the past. But this isn’t Sesame Street, folks, and the people of Dean Street are living in an American neighborhood that’s more divided than united. Then, suddenly, a focal point: two boys, one black and one white, come together in a friendship that begins with one protecting the other—but grows into much more.
Mingus Rude (Kyle Beltran) is the son of fading soul singer Barrett Rude Jr. (Kevin Mambo), and Dylan Ebdus (Adam Chanler-Berat) the child of artist father Abraham (Alex Organ) and activist mother Rachel (Patty Breckenridge), who believes that her child’s white presence on this black block will start to change the world. “That’s how I see it,” she sings—but doesn’t stick around to find out if she’s right; we’d like to know more about her reasons. Both boys are named for musicians: Mingus for jazz great Charles Mingus; Dylan because his mother is sure “the times they are a’changin’.”
The friendship seems simple at first: Mingus keeps the bullies away, and initiates Dylan into the joys of comic book superheroes and graffiti tagging. There’s laughter and adventure, and even the possibility of some homeboy magic living in a ring (of power?) Dylan’s mother has left behind for him. “I feel like I could be Superman,” they sing—and for a time, believe. But life’s tractor beams inexorably pull them apart, with Dylan sent off to an elite public high school in Manhattan, and Mingus left behind in Brooklyn—a break that leaves them disconnected and lost, and leads them toward very different futures.
It’s the life-saving infusion of music—a little pop, a little funk, a bit of rap, and a lot of sweet soul—that helps this shadowed story soar into the light. In songs and song fragments, composer Friedman fills our ears with the sounds of an era, inventing “jukebox” classics we somehow haven’t heard before, and that we hear now with the purest of pleasure. When Mingus’s father’s suited-up soul group the Subtle Distinctions (Britton Smith, Akron Watson, Juson Williams) slide into their first number, it’s an almost shivery moment: we’re beamed right into that long-ago world of delicious harmonies and seamless choreography. Yet we feel the pain, too—not only the raw pain of the best soul songs, but the quiet agony of Barrett Rude Jr., a singer haunted by the ghosts of his backup singers and his lost fame.
Sensitively conceived and directed by Daniel Aukin, who spent a decade getting Fortress to the stage, this musical distills Lethem’s novel down to its essentials. Fans of the book may lament some choices and changes, but most seem to be in the interests of good theater. It’s very clear that librettist Moses and composer Friedman are working a two-way street, with phrases, images and motifs traveling from spoken word to sung line and back again, repeating and building in our imaginations until we in the seats might begin singing or saying the lines as they come: “I’m trying to find the beat/But the time keeps changing”… “I feel like I could be Superman/I could come and save you”… “Grab something, grab something/And never let go”…
Drawing from deep quarries of talent both in New York and North Texas, this large ensemble has the strength of, well, a fortress. Almost all the players have a memorable moment in the spotlight. Most notable, perhaps, is the legendary actor Andre De Shields in the role of Barrett Rude Sr., Mingus’ preacher grandfather, who sees “the Devil on Dean Street” and comes out to a blast of electric church organ—and a note held so long you’ll begin to believe in miracles. But memorable also are Organ as Dylan’s father, reaching out with rare paternal emotion to his son’s old friend Mingus; Breckenridge as Dylan’s mother, piercing his memory with her sung mantras of social justice—though we’re never quite sure why she had to abandon him; Carla Duren and Traci Lee as the Lala/Marilla duo, both funny and a bit scary as little girls channeling the collective thoughts and warnings of the neighborhood; and Etai Benshlomo as the chess-playing future tycoon Arthur, who tells Dylan he should forget all this kid’s stuff and preserve his comics “in plastic.”
Nicholas Christopher is formidable in the bitter role of Robert, a tough kid who only gets tougher. Alison Hodgson and Jeremy Dumont, both seen recently on local stages, as well as Jahi Hearse, do fine work in a multiplicity of small roles (cop, skater, DJ, producer) that add plenty of color. And Duren scores again as Abby, the adult Dylan’s black girlfriend, who doesn’t mind that he’s “collected” her like one of his vintage LPs—but keeps calling his bluff, asking questions that push him to go back to Brooklyn and get involved with life again.
In the role of singer Barrett Rude Jr., Mambo is a brooding presence onstage. It’s clear he’s forever thinking about the past, and it’s painful to watch him try to focus on the here and now, on his yearning son and troubled father. Rude only comes to life in song, and Mambo is magnetic and emotional as the performer who took the Subtle Distinctions to the top—“three voices blended, and a fourth rising above”—but who couldn’t keep them there.
In the leads as Mingus and Dylan, Beltran and Chanler-Berat give heart-deep performances; they grow from boys to men before our eyes, and are convincing as both. Beltran (In the Heights) is the essence of “cool kid” as the pre-teen Mingus, but in his beautiful choirboy voice we also hear his longing to become someone special, to fly high out of this all-too-real world. As Dylan, Chanler-Berat (Peter and the Starcatcher) is the timid one, the sidekick, the crewman on a mission he doesn’t quite understand. Yet because the adult Dylan also serves as the all-observing narrator of the story, we’re also troubled by his growing confusion and uncertainty.
The more Dylan sees of what’s happened to the Dean Street kids, the less he understands about how the world fits together, and the more he wonders if all of it—the comic books, the graffiti, and most of all the music—might not have been lifelines, but just “bullshit” distractions that didn’t really help at all. An interesting choice, this (and one supported by Lethem’s novel)—to pull us in with music and then pull the rug out, to challenge our belief that somehow, someday, the songs will make it all better. It’s a conundrum, and one that may leave your head spinning round and round—but it’s sure to make for plenty of lively talk on the way home.
Fortress marks the return to Dallas of award-winning set designer Eugene Lee (Wicked, Glengarry Glen Ross, Saturday Night Live), whose work as the DTC’s resident designer during the 1980s and early 1990s was a more-than-local legend. Lee’s set carries the close-quarters feel of an urban neighborhood, but functionally it gives this big ensemble plenty of room to move in both horizontal and vertical space. Anchored by a span of Brooklyn brick walls, it’s fronted by a pair of twin stairways (stand-ins for city “stoops” and more) and a railed upper level, the ceiling hung with an amazing array of ‘70s hanging lights. (If you can’t find your Mom’s or Grandmom’s kitchen table illumination from back in the day, you’re just not trying.) With the help of lighting designer Tyler Micoleau, these flickering, spotlighting pendants become a little chorus commenting on the action below, aided and abetted by great sound from designer Robert Kaplowitz.
Most of the orchestra is tucked away on the upper level of the stage, connected to a live-feed image of music director Kimberly Grigsby (conducting from the orchestra pit below)—who treads lightly enough that we have no trouble hearing Friedman’s playful, questing lyrics. Camille A. Brown injects energy and even joy into her choreography, whether she’s creating synchronized steps for a soul group or the dance chaos of a neighborhood in motion. And projection designer Jeff Sugg takes a quirkily homemade approach to his special effects, with a design that will remind you of making shadows on the wall in your bedroom late at night—just right for a story that when all is said (and sung) and done, begins with two boys making friends.
The Fortress of Solitude is the DTC’s second musical co-production with The Public Theater (first was Giant) and will be part of the Public’s 2014-15 season in New York. This is only one of many partnerships that have flourished under DTC artistic director Kevin Moriarty—and please, sir, we’d like some more.
» Read Jan Farrington's interview with novelist Jonathan Lethem here
» Read Jan Farrington's interview with Michael Friedman and Itamar Moses here