Dylan (Adam Chanler-Berat) is a teenager living with his dad, a reclusive painter, in Gowanus, Brooklyn, a tough neighborhood of New York City in 1975. His mother has gone to Berkeley, California, to do her part in the civil rights movement. Dylan is one of the few white kids in his district, and the climate isn’t always hospitable. Happily, Mingus (Kyle Beltran) spots him as a bully is shaking him down, and takes him under his wing. Both Mingus and Dylan are named for music legends, and both are the same age, though Mingus has a lot more street cred. As their friendship deepens, they spend time together sharing comic books, graffiti art technique, soul-healing music and controlled substances. There is some secret aspect of their connection (implied, never revealed) but, whatever that might be, Fortress of Solitude makes it clear that it’s an extraordinary bond.
As you might gather, super hero culture, especially Superman, establishes the central conceit of this intensely affecting, quirky, exhilarating and wistful musical. Dylan and Mingus have lives that are terribly difficult to navigate, but for awhile, their beautiful friendship shields them from the excruciating cruelties of society and fate. In what has to be one of the most astonishing feats of theatre evocation I’ve ever seen, the two boys, wearing capes and standing in front of a tall, narrow screen, fly together in a joyful moment of release. They never actually appear to be flying, but the emotional authenticity of the two leads, Chanler-Berat and Beltran, make this sequence utterly convincing. You feel the tears coming to your eyes, and you can’t believe you’ve been so completely swept up.
The other side of the “Fortess of Solitude” metaphor, is the self-imposed isolation that comes when circumstances test the strength of a relationship. Dylan is accepted at a high school for the exceptionally intelligent, but it jeopardizes his close bond with Mingus. Then when Dylan comes to visit Mingus, he’s caught in the middle when a violent family episode occurs. Fortress of Solitude looks long and carefully as the years and catastrophes come between Mingus and Dylan, and what they must do to salvage a grace that is all too rare.
Based on the novel of the same title by Jonathan Lethem, with book by Itamar Moses and music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, Fortress of Solitude celebrates the musical influences (spanning 24 years) that provide catharsis, respite and restoration for Mingus and Dylan. Dylan cherishes the record collection his mother left him, Mingus’ dad, Barrett, has all but retired from a distinguished, if somewhat obscure career as an R&B singer. Lethem, Moses and Friedman show how music permeates the lives of all the characters, expressing their grief and despair, their bravado and moxie, their boredom and regret in a microcosm of different ethnicities. It is truly fresh, vibrant and intoxicating.