THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDEBased on the novel by Jonathan Lethem
Book by Itamar Moses
Music and Lyrics by Michael Friedman
Conceived by Daniel Aukin
Dallas Theater Center
Directed by Daniel Aukin
Choreographer –Camille A. Brown
Music Director –Kimberly Grigsby
Set Designer – Eugene Lee
Costume Designer –Jessica Pabst
Lighting Designer –Tyler Micoleau
Sound Designer – Rob Kaplowitz
Projection Designer –Jeff Sugg
Wig Designer – Leah J. Loukas
Orchestrator – John Clancy and Matt Beck
Conductor/Keyboard 2 –Kimberly Grigsby
Keyboard 1 – Alex Vorse
Electronic Keyboard Design – Strange Cranium
Guitar – Joe Lee
Bass – Peggy Honea
Drums – Mike Drake
Latin Percussion –Jorge Ginorio
Trumpet, Flugelhorn –Larry Spencer
Reeds – Peter Brewer
Violin, Viola – Cathy Richardson
CAST in alphabetical order:
Kyle Beltran – Mingus Rude
Etai Benshlomo –Arthur
Patty Breckenridge –Rachel/Mrs. Lomb
Adam Chanler-Berat –Dylan Ebdus
Nicholas Christopher –Robert
André De Shields –Senior
Jeremy Dumont – Radio Guy/ Gabe/ Mike
Carla Duren – Lala/Abby
Alison Hodgson – Skater Girl/Liza
Jahi Kearse –Henry/RAF/AC
Traci Lee – Marilla
Kevin Mambo – Junior
Alex Organ – Abraham
Britton Smith – Subtle Distinctions/Ensemble
Akron Watson – Subtle Distinction
Juson Williams –Subtle Distinction
Reviewed Performance: 3/14/2014
Reviewed by Joel Taylor, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Set Designer, Eugene Lee, displays a preshow cloth drop curtain covered with the word Dose in various fonts and sizes. As the story unfolds, the audience soon learns the importance and meaning of this “tag”. Lee’s two-level set & set pieces have multiple use, suggesting different areas of a Brooklyn neighborhood, including street scenes, interior and exterior of homes, a coffee shop, the office of a music producer, and inside of a prison. The upper level set has an industrial look, almost cage like, and with overhead lighting attached to the top of metal pipe structures. The band plays on the upstage area of this level.
Early in the show, the stage lights are enhanced by the use of onstage practical lighting to emphasize the time periods and cultures included in the story. Tyler Micoleau’s lighting design flows so well, the changes are almost imperceptible. Micoleau worked with Lee to select stage practicals for the cast and musicians that creates an effective atmosphere to blend with the main stage acting area. The lighting colors supplement the emotional aspects of the story. Micoleau’s use of shadow puppets reflects the childhood of the two main characters as their early relationship develops.
Camille A. Brown choreographed dance styles that span the time period and events of the story. Some credit going to the talented dancers, the choreography is crisp, high energy, suggestive, somber, and always powerful in the performance. Throughout the story, Brown includes the choreography of the “Subtle Distinctions”, a vocal group in which Junior once belonged. This ensemble’s choreography is comparable to groups such as the Four Tops, Commodores, and The Temptations, but their blend, with rap and hip hop, emphasizes the cultural and generational changes in the story.
The colors, patterns and styles of Jessica Pabst’s costume design appropriately span the decades and nicely accentuates the personality of each character, such as the three- piece suit, complete with tie and tie pin, work by Barrett Rude, Sr., the warm up suit and T-shirts worn by Junior, the plaids and striped shirts worn by Dylan, and the orange jumpsuits worn by the actors in the prison scene. Junior also wears a T-shirt and suit with the singing group, Subtle Distinctions. Each of the singers is dressed alike in 1960’s grey/blue two-piece suits with matching shoes.
The sound design that Rob Kaplowitz provides is always clear and clean so that every word of dialogue and song is heard, as well as the music from the band. Under the musical direction of Kimberly Grigsby, they back the singers and songs fully without overpowering either, and moved the audience to tap their feet, shed a tear at poignant moments, stand and applaud at the conclusion of a moving solo, or just enjoy the songs that tell this story.
Britton Smith, Akron Watson and Juson Williams are members of the singing group, Subtle Distinctions. The vocals of this backup group, and the lead vocals provided by Kevin Mambo as Junior, are soulful, harmonious, distinctive and slightly disturbing in a way that reminds of the evolution of the Motown sound.
Andre De Shields as Barrett Rude, Sr., or Senior, demands and grabs the audience’s attention with his force of personality and strong vocal the embraces his character as a reverend with a troubled past. Dressed in a three-piece suit and carrying a small suitcase, De Shields launches into his opening song with a personality and voice reminding me of the stereotypical, charismatic, Pentecostal preacher who uses emotional songs, stories and manipulations to sway his congregation, even if that preaching is not directly from the pulpit. De Shields has such a powerful and emotional vocal quality that after his opening song, I heard several “Amens” from members of the audience around me. His Senior is a flawed character with deep religious convictions that are adapted to fit his view of life. De Shields nails this role. Nicholas Christopher’s Robert raps, postures and embodies the neighborhood tough guy bully very convincingly. Christopher clearly understands and embraces this role, and his walk, hand gestures, tilt of the head, voice and intimidating manner, without actual violence, personifies Robert. Christopher’s rap and hip hop dance moves are surprisingly sophisticated and unexpected for this character. While it would be very easy to play Robert on one level as a bully throughout the musical, Christopher has moments that equally show the vulnerabilities of this character.
Abraham becomes a newly single father trying to make a living as a commercial artist while raising a son on his own in Brooklyn. Alex Organ’s character is a balanced mix of assumed aloofness, disconnected to the realities of his neighborhood and the activities of his son, and caring, loving father to both him and Dylan’s friend Mingus. Organ portrays Abraham as long suffering, and wanting more for his son. His subtle emotional changes keep the character consistently believable. Etai Benshlomo is entertaining as Arthur. Using a Jewish accent, wearing pants that would be called “high waters” in the day, and walking with a slouch, he convincingly plays young Arthur as a nerd without social graces who is more focused on his chess game than the world around him, using the chess game as a substitute for the realities of life. Over the course of the musical, Arthur evolves from introverted chess nerd to neighborhood drug dealer to respectable businessman.
Benshlomo gives each stage of his character enough convincing mannerisms, speech patterns, styles of walking, and movement to make each phrase of Arthur’s life distinct.
Carla Duren, as Lala and Abby, and Traci Lee, as Marilla, portray young girls in the neighborhood. The timing and chemistry these two actresses have with each other is apparent. During the first act, Duren plays the character of Abby, one half of the duo of teenage girls who are constantly together, hanging out in the neighborhood. In the second act, Duren also plays Lala, the black girlfriend Dylan dates after college, while living in California. As Lala, Duren sings a song that brings into perspective Dylan’s conflict of where he came from. Her song has the questioning manner and sensitivity to add an additional, emotional level to the scene.
Lee is delightful as Marilla, the other half of the duo of young girls. She provides energetic dance moves in a scene where she turns her back to the audience and provocatively dances to the upbeat music. In the scene in which Junior is tormenting Dylan, Lee provides sassy and snappy one-liners that transform an oppressive bullying scene to a more lighthearted one.
Alison Hodgson plays Skater Girl in the opening scenes and Liza later on. As Skater Girl, she moves impressively around on stage on roller skates common for the time period of the 70’s. She sings and dances on the skates with confidence and finesse. Later as Liza, Hodgson portrays a teenage girl attending the exclusive school Dylan transfers to during high school. Hodgson plays Liza as a wannabe bad girl that in reality is naïve about things such as tagging. Hodgson gives her character a fun balance of bravado and naiveté, and the audience laughs at or with her, and feels for the decisions Liza makes as she is faced with life choices that include becoming involved with drugs.
Patty Breckenridge plays dual roles as Rachel and Mrs. Lomb. Rachel is Dylan’s mother. After moving the family to Brooklyn, she leaves them to move to California and becomes involved in cultural movements. Breckenridge plays Rachel as a woman in search of more than mundane everyday life for both herself and Dylan. Rachel is primarily seen singing a song from the upper level of the stage, as if looking down on Dylan from a distant location. Her opening number song is touching as she sings on the stairs. The distinction between Breckenridge’s two characters is clear, Rachel being distant and dreaming while the character of Mrs. Lomb is a loud, Jewish mother who speaks her mind and inventively intrudes in the daily life of her teenage son.
Kevin Mambo’s portrayal of Junior reminds me of David Ruffin, former lead singer of The Temptations. Mambo is brilliant, giving Junior the emotional layers of a loving though dysfunctional father who is alternately controlling and dependent on his teenage son. Mambo plays Junior as someone dealing with his own demons in his relationship with his father and his failed career as a talented, aspiring singer. Throughout the show, Mambo’s unforgettable performance of a middle-aged, slightly out of shape man living with unfulfilled dreams of either being a professional football player or a successful singer, perfectly blends with Junior’s anger, frustration, pride in his son, shame in his father, and his desire to be more, is a man the audience relates to, feels sorry for, and angry at. When Mambo is singing, whether it is with the Subtle Distinctions or solo, it’s with a voice that can harmonize with the other members or sound slightly raspy alone. The songs alternate between harmonious blending with the group or angry and haunting, depending on the time period reflected in the song.
Kyle Beltran plays Mingus Rude, called Gus or “G” by his contemporaries in the neighborhood. Mingus is named by his father after a musician admired by Junior. The only child of a single father living in Brooklyn, Mingus begins the story as a highly respected, and even feared young teenager in the neighborhood. Beltran plays Mingus with an ever-evolving balance of early teen, invincible bravado as he tags buildings, trains and other places, trying to place his tag always higher so that people will see his mark. Beltran also includes in his portrayal of Mingus the vulnerability of a child who still believes in Superman and other superheroes with special powers to protect himself from reality provide invisibility so that no one sees you, or the power of flight. Beltran gives a touching portrayal of Mingus as he interacts on many emotional levels with the other characters of the story. Scenes in which Mingus comes across as aloof and emotionally distant with the other neighborhood kids while still sharing emotional moments with Dylan and allowing Dylan inside his protective shell, and the transitioning roles between Mingus and his father, is deftly handled by Beltran, a young talent with mature skills.
Adam Chanler-Berat plays Dylan Ebdus, a character named, presumably, after Bob Dylan by his free-thinking mother, and then raised by his father. Chanler-Berat narrates the opening by telling about his friend Dingus Rude. This is done with such earnestness and sincerity that one is immediately drawn into the story. Throughout, Chanler-Berat plays Dylan with that same sincerity and keeps the audience engaged. He gives Dylan a balance of vulnerability, strength in passion, and frustration when talking about his mother’s leaving and the love of music she shared with him. As the narrator, it is crucial that the actor playing Dylan be believable, sincere, and have the ability to be both vulnerable and aggressive in the search of answers to questions such as “Where is home? Can we distance ourselves from our past? Should we distance ourselves from our past?” Or, metaphorically and physically, “Should we go home and embrace who we are and where we come from?”
Chanler-Berat, Beltran, and the other actors in this production work so well together to present characters of childish innocence, of being bullied or wanting to escape into a world of make believe. These actors portray feelings of abandonment and discovery, despair, loss and acceptance. Through dance and dialogue, they are so open, real and vulnerable, I do not think that there was a completely dry eye in the audience or on stage by the end.
Those of us that grew up reading comic books and wishing we had superhero powers, associate The Fortress of Solitude with Superman’s retreat away from the rest of the world. In his fortress, Superman could hide from crime, and the cruelties, prejudices and demands of the rest of the world. It was a place where he could be himself, alone and safe in a world of his own making and control. In his world, Superman had symbols, pictures and items that reminded him of his home world Krypton. Watching this musical and experiencing this story reiterates that, at times, we all create our own fortresses of solitude, our own symbols of identity, of who we are, and the things that help us feel safe and reminds us where we believe home to be.
Graffiti, also called “Tags”, is a cultural symbol of identity and status. Graffiti is found in almost every town, city, urban and suburban area. Whether a single letter, word, or a name, no two tags are the same, each different in style and meaning. Along with music and comic book superheroes, tags play an important role in The Fortress of Solitude. This musical includes cultural implications and conflicts through songs that have a similarity to the songs and stories throughout the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. But The Fortress of Solitude blends elements of the story in unique ways, and is a “TAG” that will stand on its own with its own special significance.
Dallas Theater Center
Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre
2400 Flora Street
Runs through April 6th
Tuesday Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00 pm, Saturday-Sunday at 2:00 pm, and Sunday at 7:30 pm. There is no performance Sunday, April 6th at 7:30 pm.
Tickets are $15.00 -$140.00 depending on the day and time of performance. ***Advance tickets are less expensive at present, but subject to change.
For information, go to http://www.dallastheatercenter.org/ or call the box office at 214-880-0202