DALLAS It’s easy to see why Jonathan Lethem’s 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude screams out for a musical adaptation, the world premiere of which is now at Dallas Theater Center, a co-production with New York’s Public Theater.
A coming-of-age story about two friends in 1970s Brooklyn — one the son of an artist, the other of a once-promising soul singer, Barrett Rude Jr. — music is the lifeblood of the narrative.
Not only is it important to Rude’s story, but it serves as a backdrop for the changing culture over more than two decades, and as the soundtrack to the lives of the lead characters and their diverging paths.
From the soul music of Rude and his Four Tops-like the Subtle Distinctions, the book makes heavy mentions of and allusions to musicians and their art, from soul to punk to new wave to hip-hop.
James Brown, the Beatles, Miles Davis, Patti Smith, Devo, the Sugarhill Gang, Run D.M.C. and Meat Puppets may be stylistically different, but they all stem from the same place — a do-or-die passion to make music.
The structure of Lethem’s novel, however, makes it an unusual choice for musical theater, which is less bold than other performance forms when it comes to venturing away from linear guidelines. The novel is divided into three parts — the first much longer than the second and third put together.
Musical theater hasn’t met many composers like Michael Friedman, though, or playwright Itamar Moses, who have adapted the book for a rousing and deeply affecting production. Conceived and directed by Daniel Aukin, the show will appear at the Public in the 2014-15 season.
The long first act (Part 1 of the novel) follows the story of two friends, each named for a famous musician: Dylan Edbus (Adam Chanler-Berat) and Mingus Rude (Kyle Beltran). The friendship of a white kid with a black kid in a non-white neighborhood is slow-growing, but they bond over their love of comic books and music.
Dylan has a box of records that belonged to his mother, Rachel (Patty Breckenridge), who left her son and husband, Dylan’s artist father, Abraham (Alex Organ) for no clear reason.
The kids start tagging buildings and trains, and their love for superheroes (the novel’s name is a reference to Superman’s home, of course), and their bond becomes something special. At one point, they fly — a metaphor for any number of things.
Many of the novel’s satellite characters, including nerd Arthur (Etai Benshlomo) and bully Robert (Nicholas Christopher) are here, along with a host of others, played by actors Jeremy Dumont, Carla Duren, Alison Hodgson, Jahi Kearse and Traci Lee.
But as is too true in America, social pressures — not to mention opportunities — can be different for whites and blacks. Dylan gets into a prestigious school, then college in Berkeley, and becomes a respected music writer.
Mingus, after a conflict with his faded rock-star father (the terrifically soulful Kevin Mambo) and grandfather, the preacher Barrett Rude Sr. (the beyond-fabulous Broadway vet André De Shields), ends up in the pen.
The musical ingeniously follows the novel’s structure, which may surprise anyone who hasn’t read the book. In the first part of the second act (Part 2 of the book), we see Dylan narrating, through flashback, the story of Barrett Rude Jr. and the Subtle Distinctions (Britton Smith, Akron Watson, Juson Williams).
Turns out, as a music writer, Rude’s rise and fall has been his biggest passion. In the third part, Dylan visits his childhood friend.
In each part, there’s a different emotional focus with the characters, and it adds up to something truly stunning. Even the book’s hint that Mingus may have considered Dylan more than a friend is nicely handled.
But it all comes back to the music. The book mentions the songs of the Distinctions, and in that section, it’s like you’re in an awesome, soul jukebox musical.
Before that, Friedman brilliantly picks up the music motif of Lethem’s story, from sly hat-tips ( Smoke on the Water; the Beastie Boys); to the book’s repeated refrain of Play That Funky Music; to the most obvious influence of the Talking Heads, once via their cover of soul god Al Green’s Take Me to the River, and then with Once in a Lifetime.
Friedman, who has already created one of the more memorable musical scores of this millennium with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, has again made music that feels at once familiar and fresh — no small feat for a genre in which the biggest audience complaint at new book musicals is a lack of hummable tunes.
Eugene Lee’s set puts the band on the second-level scaffolding (music director and conductor Kimberly Grigsby leads them from the pit, via video feed), where they’re hovered over by lampshades of different styles.
Despite the showier roles, Chanler-Berat carries the story through as he gently transforms from a thoughtful kid with a taste for adventure to a deeply caring adult, even if that means secrets hidden from his adult girlfriend Abby (Duren).
In her third-part song, with the refrain of “la, la, la, la, la” (song titles were not in the program or provided by DTC), one of the themes of the show — summed up earlier in the line “Will you ever learn to sing anything but other peoples’ pain?” — comes home.
Dylan’s and Mingus’ lives may have turned out differently — a profound statement about race in America — but if we’re lucky, life’s journey is made richer with the help of those who go beyond the role of sidekick, like the cohorts of lead singers and superheroes do.