You can’t fault the creators of The Fortress of Solitude, a stage musical version of Jonathan Lethem’s 2003 doorstop of a novel, for a lack of ambition. Over 528 pages, Lethem follows two motherless boys in Brooklyn over the course of three decades—and addresses issues as weighty and diverse as race relations, comic books, soul music, the rise of graffiti as art, gentrification, and the New York prison system. The book also features a controversial and widely derided detour into magic realism.
The heart of the story is a remarkable friendship. Dylan Ebdus (nicely nerdy Adam Chanler-Berat) is the son of hippie artist types who move to the mostly black Gowanus section of Brooklyn in 1975 to give him a less stultifyingly homogenous upbringing than their parents gave them. He forms a fast bond with his neighbor, Mingus Rude (wonderfully expressive Kyle Beltran), a fellow comic-book geek and aspiring graffiti artist whose dad is a down-on-his-luck soul singer (Kevin Mambo).
The book and the play both hint at a furtive romance between the two, though that thread is as quickly dropped as just about everything else in director Daniel Aukin’s production. Playwright Itamar Moses (Nobody Loves You, Boardwalk Empire) and composer Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) have jettisoned virtually nothing from Lethem’s story completely, including the hints of homosexuality and the magic realism. That leaves a lot of plot to cram into a single 2 hour, 40 minute evening of theater—and not much room for any storyline or character to really breathe or gain much depth. Mingus’ grandfather, a dogmatic ex-con preacher played by the wonderful Andre De Shields, gets a showy introductory number and then mostly retreats to the sidelines. Other characters, particularly Dylan’s parents (Ken Barnett and Kristen Sieh, both miscast), pop up occasionally but fail to make much of an impression.
Friedman’s score has some real standouts, particularly his pastiches of ’60s soul and R&B. And he’s particularly adept at crafting ensemble numbers like ”The One I Remember,” an opener that combines five overlapping melodies to stunning effect and whose chorus echoes the achievement: ”Everybody singin / A different song / But if they all fit together / Then it can’t be wrong.” But a surprising number of his tunes are over just as they seem to get going, as if the production is in a headlong rush to get back to grinding out its surfeit of plot.
There is a lot of promise in The Fortress of Solitude, and some individual moments that suggest how a more streamlined storytelling approach might have elevated the material. But you may leave the Public Theater less impressed than exhausted. Speed-reading a thick tome in a single sitting can have that effect. B