The Fortress of Solitude at Dallas Theater Center Stalls on Takeoff
All through The Fortress of Solitude, the huge new musical playing now at Dallas Theater Center (co-produced with New York's Public Theater), we wait for that magical moment. Musicals need that moment. The good ones all have them. Eliza Doolittle's "rain in Spain" linguistic breakthrough in My Fair Lady. The dance at the gym when Tony first sees Maria in West Side Story. Elphaba rising from the stage belting "Defying Gravity" in Wicked. The Four Seasons finally breaking into exquisite four-part harmony on "Sherry" in Jersey Boys.
The Fortress of Solitude has some good moments, lots of them, but no big one that lifts the show into the realm of Broadway-quality greatness. No moment that makes you think, "Wow, I've never seen (or heard) THAT before."
Maybe show creators Daniel Aukin (who conceived and directed this production), Itamar Moses (book) and Michael Friedman (music and lyrics) will come up with something momentous eventually. Maybe they think they already have. They've certainly done research on what it takes to make a musical look and sound like a hit. Their show's set design by the legendary Eugene Lee (DTC's resident designer in the 1980s) mimics the industrial elements of Jersey Boys: a bridge platform, brick wall, staircases stage right and left. Lead character Dylan Ebdus (played New York musical theater actor Adam Chanler-Berat) narrates the timeline of the show the way the character Bob Gaudio does in Jersey Boys. Fortress also features an omnipresent singing group called The Subtle Distinctions (played by Akron Watson, Britton Smith, Juson Williams and Kevin Mambo), hitting sharp choreography in their shiny suits and harmonizing on tunes echoing the same era when Frankie Valli and his crew were making music.
Imitation may be sincerely flattering but in musical theater, being this derivative just seems lazy. Fortress feels and sounds like a big-budget slap-up pastiche of so many other, better shows. Besides Jersey Boys, there are bits of Spring Awakening's sexy teenage angst (though Fortress lacks any strong female characters), Next to Normal's exploration of mental illness and the hot hip-hop moves and rap rhythms of In the Heights. Composer Friedman doesn't mask his musical inspirations, sampling familiar melodic bursts from songs by Lou Reed, Talking Heads, Eminem, Bob Dylan, Al Green and Will Smith.
The lack of originality is surprising given the rich source material. Jonathan Lethem's semi-autobiographical 2003 novel elevated him to literary superstar status. (In 2005 he received a MacArthur "genius grant.") The Fortress of Solitude is filled with dozens of crazy-interesting people and page after page of description of the tiniest details of life in 1970s Brooklyn. The main characters, also front and center in the musical, become friends as kids. Dylan, named for Bob by his hippie parents, is the only white kid on the block. Halfway through the novel, Dylan's mom takes off for Berkeley. The other boy, Mingus Rude, is the son of a once-famous R&B singer whose royalties paid for a building on Dean Street. In the book, a colorful homeless man hands Dylan and Mingus a "magic" ring that endows them with super powers, or so they believe. With it they're safe from street toughs and from their own loneliness. In their "fortress of solitude" (named for Superman's retreat), they share their love of comic books and graffiti tagging. Their friendship lifts them above unpleasant circumstances; the ring is the symbol of that.
Over the novel's 25-year span, Dylan and Mingus drift apart. Dylan heads to college and grad school. He becomes a music journalist, exploiting his knowledge of The Subtle Distinctions, Mingus Rude's dad's old group, to profit from a re-released box set. Mingus graduates from petty crime to a murder rap when he shoots his grandfather in a Marvin Gaye-like scenario. The final meeting of the old friends is in a prison visiting room, each having followed proscribed societal stereotypes for better and worse. Dylan tries to give Mingus back their ring. Instead, it falls into the hands of a thug from the neighborhood, Robert Woolfolk. He dies trying to use it to escape.
A sprawling, cinematic piece of fiction isn't easy to compress into a few hours of musical theater (at DTC the show runs just under three with one intermission). Many of Lethem's finer details and best plot points have been lost in Itamar Moses' translation to the stage. Now the ring is a keepsake left by Dylan's runaway mom (an underwritten part played beautifully by Dallas actress Patty Breckenridge). Dylan's dad (Alex Organ) merely sleepwalks, singing a few lines here and there. Mingus' sometime substitute sidekick, Arthur Lomb (Etai Benschlomo), has been reduced to a clownish role who gets short shrift in the second act. Robert Woolfolk (charismatic Nicholas Christopher) now simply strolls off with the ring, denied his death scene.
About 20 minutes before intermission, there's almost a lift-off moment when Dylan and Mingus first join forces, holding the ring. But director Aukin cheaps out, making it silly and maudlin. And then there are 20 more minutes of nothing much. The whole show needs editing, but especially the first act, which begins with the 16-member cast singing "ever'body singin' a diff'rent song/but if they all sing together, it can't go wrong" — like something from Up with People.
Only in its terrific casting does The Fortress of Solitude gain any altitude. Fine singer Chanler-Berat is best when he's the younger Dylan, vibrating with nervous energy. Young Broadway star Kyle Beltran brings an angelic face and voice and real emotional depth to the role of Mingus. His character arc from shy teenager to hardened adult convict happens subtly and brilliantly. Kevin Mambo as Mingus' dad, Barrett Rude Jr., comes centerstage to sing and dance with the Distinctions at the top of Act 2. Standouts in the ensemble include Jeremy Dumont (DFW theater's finest dancer), Traci Lee, Carla Duren, Alison Hodgson and Jahi Kearse, all playing multiple roles. Broadway veteran Andre de Shields explodes onto the stage as Mingus' ex-con grandfather in the show's fieriest performance. De Shields' rousing, angry gospel-style solo is the closest thing to a great moment this show has.
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