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Fortress of Solitude

Here's a musical that almost feeds on itself (in a good way), with a bursting-at-the-seams love of pop music and its changing styles that informs its twists and turns and becomes its vocabulary. Giving voice to its characters' restlessness, yearning, and sorrows, the musical expression allows the beauty of harmony and euphoric climaxes to somehow triumph over the tougher realities its plot also paints.


Ghostlight Records

Amidst the noise and dangers of the streets of a chaotic Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1970s, the teenaged protagonists of Fortress of Solitude seek comfort and a feeling of belonging. Its appealing and soulful intensity and very human heart make it clear early on that this sometimes gutsy and gritty (but ultimately sweet) musical belongs on the list of gratifyingly adventurous modern musicals—another feather in the cap of the fertile mind of the composer-lyricist of the attention-grabbing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Michael Friedman.

From the very first track, listed simply as "Prologue, wherein a pop song is introduced as an old record with scratches and skips, then melts into a gorgeous, laser-beam direct cry of loneliness, we are pulled in and captivated. The number is striking and it's gratifying to hear it reprised as a kind of recurring theme. The real love of these forms of music, a major theme in the novel by Jonathan Lethem, is scrumptiously and luxuriously absorbed in the theatre adaptation, with bits of famous songs warmly referenced and acknowledged here, too, as they become parts of the new songs. Nods to "California Dreamin'" and Motown make the new songs feel like natural links in a chain, rather than glib pastiche exercises. But the nostalgic pull has a real-feel weight, while the original material feels richer and righter than other shows' attempts to capture mid-20th century sounds and styles. Friedman adds an edgy voice of his own, sometimes harder and sometimes gentler than how music history might lead (astray) by example. Much of his work feels more emotional and less commercial or predictable, only partially because we quickly begin to care about the characters, despite their failings.

Mixing the challenges of growing up in motherless homes with distant fathers (the case with the two main characters, who form a friendship)—among racial tensions, peer pressure, and the specter of drugs—and the ability to fly presented as factual, it's an interesting combination. Adam Chanler-Berat (Dylan) and Kyle Beltran (Mingus) as the two pals are wonderfully cast. Both have vocal qualities that allow them to present boys who have their self-protective grown tough skin, but whose voices belie that and croon sensitively, demonstrating many shadings. In this way, it's a bit reminiscent of a vocally well-cast production of West Side Story, allowing the sweet into the street-smarts. Their bonding and identification with Superman and his sanctuary that gives the story its title are memorably done, with "Superman"/"Sidekick." And, with all his numbers, the singing of Kevin Mambo as Junior, the almost-star who is teen Mingus's father, is most exciting of all, anchoring the show. A welcome presence is veteran star AndrĂ© De Shields as that character's father with his low, dramatic, rolling sound. But there doesn't seem to be a low-achiever in the whole ensemble, especially when one relishes the harmonies in ensemble numbers, such as the members of the vocal group that Junior was part of in his brief brush with fame.

Escapism through comic books, wishes, memories, and fantasies is a daily clash with the grim real world day-to-day life, and those joys and hopes and frustrations seem naturally expressive in song. At times taunting, at other times wistful, the music flows and bubbles. The fact that there is a love of pop music among the characters and that two of the parents are/were singers makes it all the more natural an outpouring.

The lyrics aren't part of the meager packaging, but are available online. The cast's delivery is generally quite clear, and the lyrics are needed for reference mostly when there is a lot going on (contrapuntal sections or heavy musical accompaniment). Repetition of lyrics, something that often vexes me in more pop/rock scores here is rarely a reason to gripe: the repetition feels justified as feelings and/or music swells, the emphasis seems needed and natural, and the resulting intensity potent. Even a punk rock-styled repeated rant that "I don't want to go to high school/ I just wanna get high!" ("High High High School") feels fun and fresh in its simple feisty rebellion. Throughout the musical, the longing for acceptance and escape is rarely too far below the surface of jangly nerves, outbursts, or bravado.

Kimberly Grigsby (conductor) adds another credit as music leader (she also plays one of the keyboards in the nine-member band). Her work has graced a wide variety of shows from the revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown to Spring Awakening to another musical about a guy who flew, Spider-Man....

So much here works so well; the album even boasts tracks that could stand on their own as fine performances of smartly crafted pop songs with pathos: "Bothered Blue" and "If I Had Known Then (What I Know Now)"—both sung by Junior and his group—as well as "The Time Keeps Changing," a sly reference to a similarly titled iconic song by Bob Dylan, for whom the key character is named.

The whole listening experience is enhanced by the way most songs nicely melt into each other, without the usually de rigueur space of several seconds of palate-cleansing silence between tracks. It all becomes a whirlpool of sound and story—and quite a compelling one indeed.

- Rob Lester

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