“This is the story of Mingus Rude,” sings Dylan Ebdus (Adam Chanler-Berat) in The Fortress of Solitude. It’s not really, though.
The further you delve into Dallas Theater Center’s world-premiere musical adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s popular novel, the more you realize that this is, first and foremost, the story of Dylan, a lonely white kid growing up in 1970s Brooklyn. It is also, somewhat more secondarily, the tale of Mingus’ father, Barrett Rude Jr., a faded soul/funk singer. Mingus, it seems, gets pushed to the edges of this overstuffed yet gripping show.
Conceived and directed by Daniel Aukin, Fortress is a co-production with The Public Theater and will be part of the Manhattan company’s 2014-15 season. Hopefully before then there will be edits to Itamar Moses’ book, which is so brimming with characters and plot lines it has a hard time focusing.
The first act, especially, is close to two hours, yet feels like it could have ended after a big production number featuring the entire cast. It doesn’t, and continues on for another 30 minutes or so. Granted, what happens at the end of those 30 minutes is pretty important, but the pace of the storytelling feels off. The second act inhabits a plane so different from the first (to go into why, plot-wise, would be spoiling) that it’s hard to make sense of the two parts as one whole.
There does exist a beautiful chaos in Michael Friedman’s layered score, which blends a traditional musical theater sound with doo wop, soul, funk, and hints of rap. Beginning with “You’re the One I Remember,” in which the residents of Dean Street sing in contrapuntal harmony, and continuing with hits by Barrett’s smooth-moved quartet The Subtle Distinctions, there are callbacks and memory-filled melodies that thread themselves throughout the show. Snippets, rather than delineated songs, define the score. This helps Fortress achieve its dream-like state—and makes moments of magical realism feel less jarring.
An odd friendship is formed after Mingus (the crystalline-voiced Kyle Beltran) sticks up for Dylan against the local bully (Nicholas Christopher). The motherless boys bond over records—notice how both are named after musicians—and comic books, imagining themselves in turn as Superman. When they both grab hold of the wedding ring Dylan’s absent mother left behind, they find they can fly.
As growing up pulls the boys apart, the focus shifts to Barrett. Kevin Mambo plays the tortured single father with a harrowing intensity. He’s often forced to confront his own father, a fallen preacher out on parole played by theater legend André De Shields, and their showdowns crackle with energy.
Grown-up Dylan becomes the show’s de facto narrator, and we’re only able to crack his carefully constructed exterior when his girlfriend, Abby (Carla Duren), provides cutting insight. Duren appears earlier as Lala, one of the neighborhood girls, yet it’s her brief turn as Abby that really showcases her considerable talent.
For all its music references, Fortress may not have seemed like a show that’s inherently suited to song. The creative team has proven otherwise, and even if it’s not the story we’re originally promised, it’s a tremendous story nonetheless.