The musical timeline of “The Fortress of Solitude” is mid-1960s to late 1980s. But the theme of this blood-pumping, heart-thumping show — the indestructible links that bind us to the old neighborhood — is timeless. The story, from Jonathan Lethem’s 2003 novel, views two boys from the same Brooklyn neighborhood who grow up as friends. At a critical moment in their lives, one leaves and the other one stays behind. Michael Friedman follows this friendship in a soaring score that keeps reinventing itself to reflect the turbulent social forces that change neighborhoods — and friends — beyond all recognition. Is there an audience for this extraordinary show? Yes. Is there a Broadway audience? Maybe not.
Dylan Ebdus (a sensitive perf from Adam Chanler-Berat), an awkward white kid living in a black neighborhood of Brooklyn in the mid-1970s, feels exactly like the outsider he is. “I’m trying to find the beat,” he sings, “But the time keeps changing on me.” Dylan is 12 years old when he meets Mingus Rude (the magnetic Kyle Beltran), a black kid from the next block who is already making his name as a tagger. A friendship is forged (in the musically rapturous “Superman”) when these imaginative boys discover that they share a yearning to be superheroes with the magic power to fly up, up and away — right out of this tough neighborhood and into the quiet Fortress of Solitude where Superman goes to escape from the world.
The boys are too caught up in the high-flying dreams of youth to realize that other boys have had the same dreams. Mingus’s own father, Barrett Rude, Jr., beautifully played by the mellow-voiced Kevin Mambo, is a hopeless cocaine addict. But in the 60s he was the lead singer in a soul group called “The Subtle Distinctions.” (Wait for this great group to sing a medley of their hits in Act Two.) And back then, he also dreamed of being a superhero.
“I’m just walking down the street / And the street is lonely / There’s no one to save me / And no one for me to save,” Junior sings today, in the poignant lyrics of one gorgeous song. “And I feel like / I could be Superman / I could come and save you / If only I could.”
Itamar Moses’ expressive book and Friedman’s (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”) clever libretto keep the focus on the coming-of-age story of Dylan and Mingus. But everyone in the neighborhood contributes something to the story. The tough kids who will grow up to be drug dealers and gangstas supply the menace in harsh rap rhythms. The cute girls (brought to life by Rebecca Naomi Jones and Carla Duren) defuse the boiling anger on the street by singing in sweet harmony.
As conceived and directed by Daniel Aukin (who was at the helm of the show’s previous production at the Dallas Theater Center), the street is the stage on which everyone on the block can act out their intergenerational dramas. Eugene Lee’s expressionistic set even looks like a stage, with steeped stairs for Camille A. Brown’s choreographed movements, an array of doors for making exits and entrances, and a terrific orchestra above it all on a catwalk.
The show’s core conflict isn’t between whites and blacks, or even between haves and have-nots. It’s the perennial conflict between parents and children, and especially between fathers and sons. The Reverend Barrett Senior, the stern patriarch played from a great height and in mighty voice by Andre De Shields, comes from the Old Testament book of fathers who speak in stately tones and sing in gospel rhythms. Introducing himself as a born-again sinner, “paroled on good behavior” after serving six years on a ten-to-fifteen year sentence, the old man sings of his mission: “Come to be a savior / For his son, his son, his son / And his grandson / From the work of the devil.”
But Junior’s soulful funk music is no match for the old man’s gospel, and young Mingus, off in a world of his own, can’t hear a word either of them is singing. His own musical idiom runs to punk and hip-hop, but in Beltran’s choirboy tenor whatever he sings sounds heavenly.
The major plot development is when Dylan leaves Brooklyn to attend high school Manhattan. And the big payoff comes in the harrowing scene in the second act when he returns to the old neighborhood he thought he’d escaped. So make no mistake about it; this is no nostalgia piece, but the tragedy of friends who lost touch with one another and the music they grew up with.