REVIEW: The Fortress of Solitude – Original Cast Recording

Originally published on

050413I’ve had The Fortress of Solitude cast album on my phone for a week and I can’t stop listening to it. Michael Friedman has given us one of those scores that offers new delights on each visit, brought to life through fantastic performances by Adam Chanler-Berat, Kyle Beltran, Kevin Mambo, André De Shields, Rebecca Naomi Jones, and the rest of the cast.

The musical (with music and lyrics by Friedman and a book by Itamar Moses, based on Jonathan Lethem’s novel of the same title) played the Dallas Theater Center and The Public Theater in 2014, earning mixed-to-positive reviews, with the majority of the criticism pointed at the musical’s inability to wrestle the entirety of the sprawling source novel into a coherent stage narrative. Detailing the stories of two friends growing up and growing apart in Gowanus, Brooklyn, in the 1970s and ’80s, the show is at once a memory play, a science fiction story, and a meditation on the politics of race, religion, gentrification, and probably a dozen other things. That hardly matters for the cast recording, produced by Dean Sharenow and Kurt Deutsch in the style we’ve come to expect from Friedman’s scores: presented like a pop album, with discrete songs and minimal dialogue.

This approach foregrounds the strengths of Friedman’s score, which lovingly draws on popular music genres from the 70s and 80s, with a focus on soul but including important forays into folk, punk, hip-hop, and new wave. Friedman’s use of pastiche places the Fortress score in the same category as Dreamgirls and Follies, deftly orienting the listener to the time, place, and social world of each song without overtly calling up specific songs (with a couple of specific exceptions). The orchestrations, by John Clancy and Matt Beck, are evocative of the classic songs that form the DNA of this score, while cleverly linking the sounds across genres to allow for a couple of brilliant musical collages like “The One I Remember” and “High High High School” that bring these different sounds into dialogue with each other. Music director Kimberly Grigsby dexterously keeps it all sounding of a piece.

This is Friedman’s most ambitious score to date, and if it falters at times, it does so only occasionally. (My only real disappointment in the score is Rebecca Naomi Jones’s second-act solo, “Something,” which seems to favor narrative necessity over musical invention.) The opening sequence, which includes a “Prelude” to establish the looking-back frame of the show and a brilliant mélange of song-fragments called “The One I Remember,” introducing characters, relationships, setting, and themes like a Brooklyn-based answer to “Tradition.”

The relatively no-frills CD packaging (designed by Kirstin Huber) includes a fold-out insert with a short essay from Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, a synopsis of the show, and a handful of production photos. A link is provided to a webpage with complete lyrics and additional photos. On the strength of this album, one suspects that years from now musical theater fans will be scratching their heads, wondering why it didn’t have a longer life beyond The Public. Perhaps on the strength of this album, it will.

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