Review by Samuel L. Leiter
Comic book fans will recognize this show’s title as the secret refuge of Superman, where the Man of Steel seeks solace from his worldly travails. In Jonathan Letham’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, now adapted as a patchily absorbing, occasionally soaring, and distinctly dark-edged musical, the name—never mentioned in the show—stands for Dean Street in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood as remembered by the central character, Dylan Edbus, who grew up there in the 1970s, and who, no matter where he goes, can never get it out of his system.
Conceived and directed by Daniel Aukin, with a book by Itamar Moses, and music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, this ambitious project is being produced at and by the Public Theater in association with the Dallas Theatre Center, where the show premiered. Letham’s complex story has been boiled down to a still overlong two hours and thirty-five minutes. An excellent ensemble covers those secondary characters that remain, often playing two or more, as this diffuse tale of aspiration, friendship, drug abuse, broken homes, racial tension, and damaged dreams takes us from the funky mid-1970s and early 1980s to the gentrified 1990s.
Music (and its significance as a form of personal salvation) forms The Fortress of Solitude’s emotional backbone, which focuses on Dylan (Adam Chanler-Berat) and Mingus (Kyle Beltran), both named for famous musicians, who meet as kids when Dylan’s parents, the “wild-eyed, chain-smoking, unshockable” Rachel (Kristen Sieh) and her artist husband Abraham (Ken Barnett), move to Brooklyn from Berkeley, spurred by Rachel’s search for the kind of diversity you did not see on 1970s TV; Rachel, however, runs off not long afterward. Her imagined appearances thereafter express her lingering effect on Dylan’s psyche.
The nerdy white Dylan (who narrates much of the action) and the cool biracial Mingus—who also suffers the trauma of an absent mother—bond and share their comic book fantasies of superheroes and flying (the Superman connection). Rachel’s wedding ring, left behind, becomes a talisman that takes on magical powers in the boys’ imaginations, including when the artistically gifted Mingus, with Dylan as his acolyte, becomes obsessed with tagging his graffiti moniker, “Dose,” on elevated structures reachable only by flight.
Also linking the boys is the music of Mingus’s coke-snorting father, Barrett Rude Junior (Kevin Mambo), a once successful but now faded lead singer with a soul group called the Subtle Distinctions (moving slickly in classic Motown style, they slide in and out of the action); his records, among Rachel’s favorites, also permanently affect Dylan. The boys’ lives diverge after Mingus is involved in a tragic family shooting, reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s death, involving Barrett’s bible-thumping father (André De Shields), a felon on parole. By Act Two, which feels like it belongs to a separate show, Dylan is a rising music journalist while Mingus is serving yet another in a string of prison terms. Once again, we discover that you can’t go home again.
Friedman’s score, woven like its woof into the libretto’s warp, pays homage to the funk, pop, doo wop, R&B, rap, soul, and other styles of the years covered, but even his best songs—and there are some really good ones, like “Take Me to the Bridge” and “Who’s Calling Me?”—stop just short of being as memorable as the originals they are modeled on. Another listening is certainly warranted.
Working on the usually exceptional Eugene Lee’s unexceptional set, Adam Chanler-Berat and Kyle Beltran show acting and singing talent (particularly Beltran), but neither charmed me. The takeaways are Kevin Mambo’s Barrett Junior; Rebecca Naomi Jones, as Dylan’s black girlfriend, Abby; and André De Shields as Barrett Senior, who begins his big number by holding a note so long you’re sorry you didn’t use your stopwatch to time it.
The creative team hasn’t succeeded in converting Letham’s The Fortress of Solitude into a fully satisfying musical, which would have been a job for Superman. But this is still a fortress many will want to breach.
Public Theater 425 Lafayette Street New York, NY 10003 Taub Box Office: 212.967.7555 thru Nov. 2nd