Comic books are balm for the teenage male soul. Their underdog heroes promise that loneliness can be a source of power. In The Fortress of Solitude — a new musical adapted by Itamar Moses and Michael Friedman from Jonathan Lethem’s novel, now playing the Public Theater — two Brooklyn boys learn to be alone, together. Their superpower is friendship. But it can’t last.
Dylan (Adam Chanler-Berat) and Mingus (Kyle Beltran) have a lot in common: They’re both named after famous musicians, have artistically frustrated fathers and absent mothers, and love comics. For a while, in 1970s Gowanus, that’s enough. But they’re also separated by America’s most persistent divider: race. As the boys grow up, Dylan flees Brooklyn for California and a career in music criticism; Mingus, enmeshed in familial violence, goes to prison.
Fortress‘s first act is pitch-perfect: Friedman’s score conjures ’70s BK with a bumping pastiche of r&b, funk, soul, and intimations of hip-hop. But as exuberance gives way to elegy in the second half, the musical’s good intentions occasionally betray it. Seeing the story (mostly) from Dylan’s perspective means we’re always viewing Mingus through the fog of Dylan’s regret — further isolating him, despite Beltran’s graceful performance. Still, the excellent ensemble counters these rough spots. They remind us that the present is always a duet of solitudes: the remote past singing to the unknown future.