Music runs like a river through Jonathan Lethem’s best-selling 2003 novel, “The Fortress of Solitude,” set in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The work centers on the unlikely friendship between two boys, one Jewish and the other African American, as both navigate a world being turned upside down by drugs and economic inequality,
Little wonder, then, that the novel has been turned by playwright Itamar Moses and songwriter Michael Friedman into an Off-Broadway musical, one that surveys the history of American pop music from the beginning of rock and roll through the flowering of rap at the end of the 20th century. It runs through this weekend at the Public Theater.
Born in Brooklyn to a Jewish mother and Protestant father, Lethem grew up in a commune in the neighborhood where “Fortress” is set. He sprang to prominence in 1999 with the publication of his novel, “Motherless Brooklyn,” a detective story whose protagonist, Lionel Essrog, suffers from Tourette’s syndrome. “Fortress of Solitude” was named a New York Times “Editor’s Choice” and has been published in 15 languages.
The musical version of “Fortress” premiered in March at the Dallas Theater Center. Directed by Daniel Aukin (“Bad Jews”), it focuses on Dylan Ebdus (Adam Chanler-Berat), the son of a Jewish father, Abraham (Ken Barnett), who neglects his son to paint animated cels and covers of science fiction novels, and Mingus Rude (Kyle Beltran), the son of a black soul singer, Barrett Rude Junior (Kevin Mambo). Their relationship is based on a mutual interest in superheroes and music; it is cemented by their discovery of a magic ring that appears to confer the ability to fly.
But their friendship, which they need to keep secret from most of their classmates, is doomed to be strained by gentrification in the neighborhood and by the divergent career and educational opportunities that were available to blacks and whites in the city.
In an interview with Broadway Theater World, Beltran, who has been in the cast since its first workshop production at Vassar College, called the musical “quintessentially New York” and said that there is “nothing like performing in the place where the story takes place.” He called it an “intimate story” that touches on larger socioeconomic themes, making it “tiny and huge at the same time.”
“The Fortress of Solitude” runs through Sunday, Nov. 16, at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. Performances are on both weekday and weekend evenings at 8 p.m., with weekend matinees at 2 p.m. For tickets, $80-$90, call the box office at (212) 967-7555 or visit www.publictheater.org.