October 25, 2014

“The Fortress of Solitude” and “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” Offer Riffs on the Stories of Boys Growing Up in the Hood

Everyone has been talking about what a busy fall season this is being (and it is; I’m booked solid seeing shows for the next month). But what they may have overlooked is that this season is also shaping up to be an unusually busy one for African-American actors, who are getting the chance to take center stage in some high-profile off-Broadway shows. 

There are the nearly all-black ensembles in the recently-departed Bootycandy, the currently-playing While I Yet Live and the soon-to-open Lift, Pitbulls and Our Lady of Kibeho. Then there’s the colorblind casting of Roslyn Ruff in Ivo van Hove’s production of Scenes from a Marriage (which closes this weekend) and John Douglas Thompson in the title role of the 16th century drama Tamburlaine, Parts I and II (which opens next weekend) plus major roles for Quincy Tyler Bernstein in Playwrights Horizons’ Grand Concourse and Tracie Thoms in Manhattan Theatre Club’s Lost Lake, both now in previews.

And just this past week came The Fortress of Solitude, a new musical at The Public Theater, and brownsville song (b-side for tray) a new drama at Lincoln Center Theater’s Claire Tow Theater. Both these shows attempt to offer fresh looks at the lives of young black men coming of age in rough neighborhoods in Brooklyn. But although there are things to recommend in each (including some fine performances) neither is totally successful. 
The Fortress of Solitude is based on Jonathan Lethem’s semi- autobiographical novel about Dylan Ebdus, a Jewish kid growing up in the predominantly black section of Gowanus during its pre-hipster days in the late ’70s and early ‘80s; and his best friend Mingus Rude, the son of a third-tier soul singer and the coolest kid on the block. 

It’s a terrific book that riffs on race, class, friendship, father-son relationships, pop music and superheroes (magical realism segments give the boys the power to fly over the city). The one thing it doesn't have is a well-structured narrative. 
That’s no problem for Lethem’s novel because it’s filled with full-bodied characters, great dialog, a visceral sense of time and place and all those ideas. But the loose-limbed plot is harder for this musical to deal with. 

Book writer Itmar Moses strains to include all the iconic moments from the novel—the attacks by the neighborhood bully, the mystical flights, the grownup Dylan’s reconciliation with his father—but that just muddies the storyline with sketchy scenes.
Moses also tries to keep the focus on Dylan, even though he’s clearly more interested in the tale of Mingus and his dad, as both spiral down into lives marked by disappointment and violence.

The show’s composer and lyricist Michael Friedman has an easier time with the music. He taps into the R&B, dance pop and early hip-hop that defined the ‘80s and the result is a surprisingly ingratiating score.  I hope they do a cast album.
Meanwhile, director Daniel Aukin manages to hold attention with all kinds of old-school stage tricks, including having the backup singers from the soul group double as a Greek chorus and ensemble members hoist Dylan and Mingus aloft to simulate their superhero escapades. 

And the cast, lead by Adam Chanler-Berat as Dylan and Kyle Beltran as Mingus, works hard. The stand out is Kevin Mambo, who turns in a sensational performance as Mingus’ dad, hitting all the right notes of remorse and singing the hell out of every song he’s given.

Brownsville song (b-side for tray) is less ambitious in every way. Running just 90 minutes, compared to the two-and-half-hours for Fortress, and featuring a cast of five, compared to the musical’s 18, it tells the more intimate story of a kid named Tray whose struggle to get out of the Brownsville projects and into college is thwarted by the senseless violence of his neighborhood.

The play opens after Tray’s death and playwright Kimber Lee clearly wants the audience to mourn the loss of this young everyman. So she and director Patrica McGregor make Tray a paragon of virtues. 
In flashbacks, he's revealed to have had enough athletic prowess to rank as a Golden Gloves contender and enough smarts to qualify for an academic scholarship. He worked at the local Starbucks, avoided local gangs, was a supportive big brother and grandson and displayed unusual grace when the stepmother who abandoned him and his little sister after their father’s death reappears to seek forgiveness. 

All this goodness is well meaning but it also saps the energy out of the play, despite a charismatic performance from Sheldon Best as Tray and a dynamic one from Lizan Mitchell as his no-nonsense grandmother Lena.

 Brownsville song (b-side for tray) and The Fortress of Solitude may be imperfect shows but the performances make them worth seeing and since both are scheduled to run through Nov. 16 and the tickets for brownsville are, like all LCT3 productions, just $20, there's a way for you to do that.

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