Every so often, but not often enough, we stumble on a new musical that fills a need we didn't even know we had. "The Fortress of Solitude," despite the loneliness of the title, is an exuberant, altogether engrossing and moving socio-pop musical that may remind theatergoers of the way they felt when they first saw "Rent" and "In the Heights."
This subtle yet outgoing show, conceived and seamlessly directed by Daniel Aukin, is based on Jonathan Lethem's 2003 best-seller about coming-of-age as a white boy on the black streets of Gowanus, Brooklyn, in the mid '70s. It has a witty, sensitive book by Itamar Moses and a score by Michael Friedman ("Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson") that samples 25 years of hit soul, punk and hip-hop while managing to sound both original and authentic.
This is told as a memory story about Dylan (Adam Chanler-Berat), named for the singer by his idealistic, music-loving but irresponsible mother. She abandons him and his distracted artist father (the terrifically ambiguous Ken Barnett) after dragging them from Berkeley to the ghetto to make "a better America than the one that's on TV."
But this is also the story of young Mingus (Kyle Beltran), named after the jazz great, and the friendship that builds on mutual need, classic LPs and superhero comics, but crumbles with the boys' unequal possibilities. Chanler-Berat and Beltran are wonderful as wary 12-year-olds who mature with sobering inevitability. A wrenching highlight is a 10-minute musical play-within-a-play that takes Mingus through four increasingly deadening prisons.
Both motherless boys are raised by problematic but equally compelling fathers. Mingus' dad (played with deep soul-searching power by Kevin Mambo) was an almost-famous lead singer of a trio, The Subtle Distinctions, who back up much of the action with smooth harmonies and synchronized moves.
In fact, nothing stops moving on the stage, imaginatively and minimally designed by Eugene Lee with a generous band on a catwalk. André De Shields has a pivotal role as Mingus' paroled grandfather, a minister with a fondness for young girls and the ability to sing for what seems forever without taking a breath. The girl/women characters are incidental but full of individuality, while David Rossmer (the Jewish nerd) and Brian Tyree Henry (the sly neighborhood bully) define the extremes of humanity without stereotype.
There are many songs in many styles in a show that keeps us guessing about where it's going. Broadway, however, would seem to be a reasonable destination.
WHAT"The Fortress of Solitude"
WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.
INFO $90; 212-967-7555, publictheater.org
BOTTOM LINE Thrilling new musical about race, pop music and friendship.