Dallas Theater Center has been on or close to the ground floor of new musicals a lot recently, including last year’s Fly By Night and Fly, with mixed results. They’re at it again with the world premiere of The Fortress of Solitude, a musical that challenges the form of the genre.
Staging a new or work-in-progress musical can be a tricky thing. Audiences aren’t familiar with the story or songs, so everybody in the production — from the actors down to the last musician — has to be on point for it to fulfill the vision of its creators.
From the opening number, the audience gets a feel for the multiple viewpoints and cultures at play in the neighborhood, and it’s a kind of infectious chaos.
The Fortress of Solitude is ambitious in both its narrative and music. Set in the Brooklyn in the late ’70s/early ’80s, it follows two friends, Dylan (Adam Chanler-Berat) and Mingus (Kyle Beltran), as they attempt to navigate the tricky waters of high school and beyond.
Dylan, who is white, finds himself ill at ease in a mostly black neighborhood until Mingus, who is black, sticks up for him. The two find common bonds over multiple things, including comic books and music. The latter is helped by the fact that Mingus’ father, Barrett Rude Jr. (Kevin Mambo), had a few moments in the sun as the lead singer of Subtle Distinctions, a soul/funk band from the early ’70s.
Both boys also are missing mothers in their lives, something that affects them in different ways. As each grows, the absence of their mothers, their strained relationships with their fathers and their friendship all play a part in their respective destinies.
Although not true in every instance, most musicals tend to have relatively defined start and stop points for each song. The Fortress of Solitude eschews that idea, with the vast majority of music coming in snippets.
This helps create a through-line for the entire show, with each small piece acting as a reminder or callback to previous events. But it also might be a bit frustrating for those used to a more traditional musical approach.
But Itmar Moses, who wrote the book, and Michael Friedman, who wrote the music and lyrics, do a fantastic job of setting the scene through the music. Right from the opening number, “You’re the One I Remember,” the audience gets a feel for the multiple viewpoints and cultures at play in the neighborhood, and it’s a kind of infectious chaos.
The musical returns time and again to the music Barrett Rude Jr. created, with Rude and his backup singers appearing onstage to serve the story in one capacity or another.
Songs like “Grab Something” and “If Only I Could Fly” feel like they were transported straight from the ’70s.
Songs by the Subtle Distinctions like “Grab Something” and “If Only I Could Fly” feel like they were transported straight from the ’70s. They also have an obvious impact on the proceedings, as they’re integrated into multiple scenes and inspire “If I Could Fly,” a duet by Dylan and Mingus.
Additionally, the musical give clues to the passage of time with allusions to songs like The Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” and the emergence of rap.
The production tackles social themes like racial divide, drugs, economic disparity and gentrification, but it never gets bogged down in them. Those social factors have a say in how the lives of Dylan and Mingus turn out, but they’re also not the end-all, be-all of the two boys.
Although it’s mostly a dramatic piece, The Fortress of Solitude makes room for good chunks of humor, a choice that keeps the negative parts of the characters’ lives in play without ever dwelling on the negativity.
Chanler-Berat and Beltran make for a dynamic one-two punch. The relationship they have goes through the ups and downs common with any friendship, and the way the two interact makes you truly believe they grew up together.
While Dylan is more of the lead character, Beltran makes sure that Mingus is no second banana, nailing each of his opportunities to sing. Chanler-Berat’s numbers are less showy but no less impactful, especially given the weight his character feels throughout.
Other standouts include Mambo, who seems like he really could have had a career as a soul/funk singer; Andre De Shields, who makes a grand entrance as Barrett Rude Sr.; and Carla Duren, who does double duty as Lala, a neighborhood girl, and Abby, Dylan’s girlfriend, who has a significant role in the second act.
The Fortress of Solitude defies easy characterization, as there are many small elements that play a part in its success. And it is a success, delivering a musical with a hodgepodge of melodies that’s as memorable as any traditional production.