Hi all! You may remember me from my guest blogging stint this summer. I’m supposed to be a new permanent blogger for LGM but I have been terribly remiss. But I saw The Fortress of Solitude, a new musical at The Public theater based on the Jonathan Lethem novel, and I had so many swirling thoughts about it I knew they must become a blog post. Hopefully I will get my act together to write more blog posts, perhaps about non-theatrical topics. Anyway:
The Fortress of Solitude is the story of the friendship of Dylan, a white boy in pre-gentrification Brooklyn, who after being abandoned by his mother, befriends Mingus Rude, son of Barrett Rude, Jr., a washed-up soul singer. To the credit of composer/lyricist Michael Friedman and bookwriter Itamar Moses the show is a continuously entertaining two-and-a-half hours. I appreciated their effort to write a musical motivated by character and story and rooted in time and place. During the first act, I both enjoyed and was bemused by its curiously slow, contemplative energy, which somehow persisted even during high-energy dance sequences. I think it managed this strange effect through its music. In a gesture toward the way Dylan is said to live his life trying to make meaning out of fragments of music (and yes, unfortunately, this show does sometimes get just that ponderous), the songs cycle rapidly through styles, and numbers sample and reincorporate each other. Of course it’s normal in a musical to hear songs reprised and refrains repeated, but it’s notably aggressive in this score. The effect is somewhat dissonant, resisting conventional satisfaction, never taking the audience to an emotional high, but instead propelling us through a wall of sound.
Notable exceptions are sung by Kevin Mambo, who plays Barrett Rude, Jr. with glowering, broken ferocity. He and his fictional quartet, The Subtle Distinctions, get the most powerful, coherent music. “Who’s Calling Now?” is plausibly ruthless as a rage/despair anthem in the same emotional genre as “A Change Is Gonna Come.” It’s also a pleasure to watch André de Shields play Barrett Rude, Sr., with gleeful, devilish pomposity. He appears singing his own name with a hilariously sustained note and every time he’s on stage he struts like he’s skipping on the inside. Kyle Beltran as Mingus has an open face and a fluty voice. For days after I could hear his dreamy, otherworldly pride when he sang “If I could fly/Like superman through the sky/I’d live forever in my fortress of solitude/A fortress built for Mingus Rude.” These are the most memorable musical moments and the strongest moments of character building.
But despite the charge of these character sketches, the show as a whole fails on the level of story. The strength of Mingus and Dylan’s bond is never established sufficiently for the audience to mourn its eventual rupture. It doesn’t help that the sequence that is meant to portray their relationship in its fullest form is the sequence in which they become superheroes. This is handled clumsily on stage by director Daniel Aukin. Flying is variously represented by the actors standing on tiptoes and waving their arms, their shadows cast large on a screen behind them, two little figures projected on a screen, and weighted boots that allow them to tilt forward at an improbable angle. The interlude of magical realism doesn’t make sense amid a plot that’s otherwise naturalistic. It isn’t clear whether they are really supposed to be flying, or whether its a fantasy they have, and either way it serves no apparent plot purpose.
Adam Chanler-Berat is Dylan, the protagonist, and yet he doesn’t have much to do. The character doesn’t move or develop. His mom left; his best friend falls into misfortune; he is the observer. The story is supposed to be about his observing, of not being enough of an actor, not sufficiently self-aware. But this is a hard trick to pull, requiring a deft hand with storytelling, and the hand is not deft enough here.
The show’s failure to make a case for telling the story of its white hero means that despite fairly oozing liberal consciousness about race, it manages to verge on racist. It claims awareness of the problem of viewing black people as if they are props in a white story, of always making the implied subject white, as if it’s the white person’s journey that really matters. Dylan, we are told, has an attraction to black art and black pain, and uses their music as a substitute for understanding his own interior life. But this musical uses its black characters as props in its white protagonist’s journey. I don’t know how or whether the book managed to write itself out of this trap but this show totally fails to. It’s not as obvious in the first act, but the second act it becomes embarrassing. Older Dylan is given a black girlfriend (Rebecca Naomi Jones) who as a character spectacularly fails the Bechdel test, and whatever we should call the black/white analog, in an agonizingly clunky, on-the-nose song about how he hasn’t told her the truth about his childhood, she is worried about being a black collector’s item, and he’s attracted to black music because of its “authenticity” and is not in touch with his own real emotions. She then has literally nothing else to do, but she still hangs around on stage through much of the second act, singing refrains from this one song. The irony is apparently lost on the writers. Mingus and Barrett Rude, Jr. and Sr. are interesting characters, but they are viewed through the lens of what they mean to the milquetoast white guy we, the audience, are presumed to identify with.
My theater companion asked: why did we have to see another white protagonist? Why wasn’t this show about Mingus? “Because The Fortress of Solitude is a semi-autobiographical novel” is an unsatisfying answer if I’m trying to evaluate a work of fiction by the universe its created, and not as a therapeutic act by the author. Dylan is a boring character. He doesn’t move or develop. His disconnection isn’t a compelling story next to Mingus or, who I’d propose as the real star: Barrett Rude, Jr. The black characters get stage time but it just doesn’t make up for the framing. The musical begins: white Dylan has something to explain about his childhood. It ends: white Dylan and his father, looking at his father’s abstract art film, in an awkwardly literary passage that made me picture the page in a novel it came from: the shape the father paints over and over represents the space inside, separated from the space outside. It’s not wrong to use that kind of abstraction on stage, or to tell a story about a character whose movements are very subtle, but in this case it’s not successful. The Fortress of Solitude never explains to the audience why it’s telling the story it chose, why we should care to be inside with Dylan, instead of any of a richer character who can carry their own story.