Thursday, October 23, 2014

Fortress of Solitude: Flying Too High

At some point during Fortress of Solitude I felt like like been taken to a music trivia night and if you know me that's a really mean thing to take me to.  I've never really been a big music fan. I was a movie buff growing up and I could probably guess a film in three frames but I'd be hard pressed to Name That Tune even after hearing the song completely without being able to Shazam it.

The creative team behind Fortress of Solitude, director Daniel Aukin, book writer Itamar Moses, and composer Michael Friedman, have opted to make oblique references to time in this sprawling musical based on the book by Jonathan Lethem.  Mostly we get clues to the era via music. Funk, soul, rap, and ballads that hint at the 70's and 80's of Brooklyn. But most of the time I felt lost. Not just because of my lack of music encyclopedic knowledge but because no one was using the music to tell the characters' stories.

For the entire first act I was flummoxed as to who the characters were (ok two little boys whose moms had walked out--why did we spend like an hour on this straightforward situation), what they were feeling, who they were to each other (Is someone gay? Is everyone gay? Is no one gay?), how old anyone was, what year it was, but mostly why do I care. Also superheroes.  You definitely lost me at superheroes.

I kept thinking about how well Fun Home (staged in the same theater) quickly laid out who the characters were, what the dilemma was, and got very quickly into the emotional sinew of the story. Here the songs were fun, smart, and colorful throwbacks to different musical eras BUT WHY WAS I HERE?

The story is meant to be a coming of age tale of two boys Dylan (Adam Chanler-Berat) who is white and Mingus (Kyle Beltran) who is black. Both living with their Dads in Brooklyn in the 70's and struggling...that's about all I got.  There was a magic ring* and maybe they could fly so they could tag things with graffiti.  Fuck if I could tell. Told from Dylan's perspective we are given the "white boy"'s view of this time, place, and circumstance.**  But it turns out Dylan is a poor narrator--who they were to each other and what they meant to each other was left a mystery.  Even if Dylan didn't know his feelings, I wish the creative team had seen fit to tell us.  Because the lyrics or book didn't tell me, all I had was the performances to rely on. I always find Adam Chanler-Berat to be the same mopey puppy in every show. Here it was no different.  Kyle Beltran has a gorgeous voice and played a sweet and mysterious Mingus but I didn't understand their relationship at all. Then they go to different high schools, they grow apart, and then "shit goes down."

Act 2 is a chapter on white guilt, privilege, and going home again. It was clearer what was happening but everything came off so buffed down to its essential parts that it all fell into stereotypes which left me uncomfortable.  I suspect the novel might fill in a lot of holes in its 500 pages. But boiled down here too much time is spent on unnecessary things (did we need a gospel number from grandpa; how many times do we need to be haunted by the mom leaving; why do you even bother having female characters if they are just there as window dressing) and what we see on stage is either too subtle to be perceived (unless perhaps you had read the book) or too starkly obvious.  Everything seemed to fall to one of these extremes and we end up in very black or white spaces.  The obvious gray areas of the subject matter were lost. 

Each song, moment, and scene needs to tell us something. Each flashback, musical interlude, or big showy number needs to add up to something.  The songs were gorgeous on their own but they were not serving the narrative of the musical.  For all my criticism, I could see the soaring ambition here to capture a lot of important social issues, history, and a very specific place in time.  It was great to see a largely African-American cast in a musical and diverse musical sounds on stage but in the end I got a misty, water-colored memory of Brooklyn in the 70's but that was not enough to be a fully-formed musical.

* I hated Lord of the Rings. This ring was doing me no favors either. 
**It was disappointing to see a large, talented African-American cast left to illustrate the white boy's story rather than given a voice of their own. Even though we get windows into some characters lives it is all from Dylan's perspective which, as told here, made it limited and problematic. I understand that may have been the intent but I think the production needed to address these things if the narrator was so unreliable and would not/could not. Maybe it was trying with the throwaway scene at the end with Dylan's girlfriend but that was far too late in the show for a critical eye on the proceedings.

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