There is an old record player (remember, those?) placed at the foot of the stage. Dylan Ebdus (played by Adam Chanler-Berat) enters, puts on an old Motown-inspired vinyl, and begins to weave an emotional tale of friendship, race and the impact of music. That device remains a constant throughout the production of The Fortress of Solitude, a new musical by Michael Friedman (music and lyrics) and Itamar Moses (book) based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem. The story’s peeks and valleys follow Dylan as his visionary mother drags the family from Berkeley, California, to Gowanaus, Brooklyn—now gentrifically referred to as Boerum Hill. She quickly abandons the family and leaves Dylan with his emotionally distant artist father (Ken Barnett). He is one of the few white kids on the block and quickly strikes a friendship with Mingus Rude (played by Kyle Beltran), son of a has-been singer, Barrett Rude Junior (Kevin Mambo) and grandson of an urban preacher gone bad (André de Shields).
The Public Theater’s artistic director Oskar Eustis says, “The Fortress of Solitude embodies the things The Public Theater strives to achieve: it is a tremendously personal story that takes place within a larger social context, and a story that reveals how our most intimate relationships are shaped by history, class and race.” He’s absolutely right.
The largely linear plotline spends must of the first act with Dylan and Mingus as tweens as they discover comic books and navigate the social structure of the neighborhood. The show nearly veers off track into children’s theater territory, with the adult cast portraying pre-adolescent angst. Mingus takes up graffiti, tagging the city streets with his moniker, “dose,” a chilling foreshadow of the direction his life is headed. Eventually, Dylan places into a magnet high school, which sets him on a trajectory for a college education, while Mingus is left in the shadows. The second act is a more somber reflection of what happens when the cards are stacked against you and Mingus faces the ramifications of a family dispute gone terribly awry.
Mr. Friedman captures a spirit of authenticity with his Motown-inspired score, which is also peppered with contemporary musical theater anthems that are sure to bring tears to your eyes. But it is the heartfelt and achingly emotional performances of Mr. Berat, Mr. Beltran and the eclectic ensemble (special note should be made of Rebecca Naomi Jones’ spot-on performance of Dylan’s girlfriend Abby in Act 2) that breaks down the fortress walls and connects theatergoers to a timely topic rarely expressed so effectively on the stage.
The Fortress of Solitude
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Through November 2
Matthew Wexler is the Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on Twitter at @roodeloo.