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‘The Fortress of Solitude’ Theater Review: Jonathan Lethem’s Brooklyn Via ‘Avenue Q’

Some of Michael Friedman’s tunes are real keepers, but missing in Itamar Moses’ book and Daniel Aukin’s direction is the meanness as well as the creative energy of 1970’s Brooklyn

It’s Brandon de Wilde month in the entertainment world.

No, TCM is not devoting a week or even 24 hours to the memory of the innocent, winsome, soulful young actor who kept having to learn life’s tough lessons in movie after movie, from “Shane” to “Hud,” until his untimely death at age 30 in 1972.

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Instead, de Wilde lives on in two performances this month; one is on-screen in “Fury” with Logan Lerman‘s too-good soldier who can’t kill, and the other is on stage in the musical version of “The Fortress of Solitude” with Adam Chanler-Berat’s too-good white kid growing up in a black neighborhood. “Fortress,” adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s best-seller, opened Wednesday at the Public Theater.

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Unfortunately, when it comes to male wimps, they do make them like they used to.

Lerman has the excuse of being in a movie about World War II. Chanler-Berat inhabits a more recent world, 1970s and 80s Brooklyn, and it is difficult to believe that this kid would survive on the Brooklyn Heights promenade today, much less the mean streets of Gowanus 40 years ago.

Lethem’s 2003 bestseller presents a remarkable panorama of Brooklyn in its transformation from slum to gentrified neighborhood. It’s a sprawling novel, and not an easy one to adapt to the stage. But turning “Fortress” into a musical does give its creative team the opportunity to let us hear the music that allows the young hero Dylan (Chanler-Berat) to escape the harsh realities of Brooklyn.

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A few years ago, songwriter Michael Friedman created a fun trunk load of pastiche songs for the send-up musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” and his knack for replicating a panoply of musical genres — gospel, funk, R&B, rap — gets a full workout in “Fortress.”

That music tells the story of Dylan, whose best friend’s father, Barrett Rude Junior, is a great but unrecognized R&B vocalist who now alternates between doing the occasional back-up gig and being a recluse in his Brooklyn apartment. A few of Friedman’s catchy tunes are real keepers, especially those whose lyrics don’t overreach with too much exposition. But missing in Itamar Moses’ book and especially Daniel Aukin’s direction is the meanness as well as the creative energy of 1970’s Brooklyn.

The “Fortress” characters age about twenty years in both the novel and the musical. Still, that’s no reason for all the adult actors playing adolescents to appear caught in a revival of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which is, after all, a broad comedy. Moses and Aukin’s Brooklyn more resembles Queens in “Avenue Q” than anything to be found in Lethem’s gritty but fantastical novel.

The grit’s not there, and the fantasy completely misfires. Dylan and his black friend Mingus Rude (Kyle Beltran) fantasize about being comic-book superheroes. A breathtaking flight of imagination in the book, their dream world on stage seems closer to something one of those “Avenue Q” puppets might conjure up. Reading their comic books, the two boys appear ready for the neighborhood soda fountain, not a night on the train tracks looking for a subway car to paint over. At times Chanler-Berat bears a close resemblance to that dippy caricature of Ben Brantley on the “Did He Like It?” website. This actor has done fine work before, but he’s simply miscast here.

“Fortress,” among many other things, is about art and the solitude it brings to those who make it. In addition to vocalist Rude Junior (Kevin Mambo giving a tough, intense performance), there’s Dylan’s father, Abraham (a nicely understated Ken Barnett), an avant-garde filmmaker, and Mingus, who risks his life to bring graffiti to the city’s five boroughs via subway cars.

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In act two, Rude Junior is a complete recluse, Abraham goes on making films that no one sees, and Mingus is in jail. Once he stops trying to play a wide-eyed adolescent, Beltran lands on solid ground as a performer, and his final scene in jail is genuinely heartbreaking.

But what happens to our delicate white hero? In addition to missing his mother (Kristen Sieh), he goes to school at Berkeley, and makes a pitch to a movie producer (Jari Kearse) we know is a jerk because he speaks with a British accent.

In the novel, Lethem and his hero (the narrator switches from third-person to first-person for the book’s second half) affect a relentless, sometimes annoying, superiority. If only Dylan on stage displayed at least some of that spine.