Monday, December 11, 2006

High F******G Fidelity

"High Fidelity" at the Imperial Theatre, December 10, 2006

I'm pretty sure I saw the movie when it came out. It was cute. I didn't really get the hype around it at the time, but then again, I hadn't read the Nick Hornby book, on which it was based.

For some reason, those with the cash and energy have created a musical version for Broadway, painfully continuing one of the two less creative source trends for stage entertainment that has been trying to smother Broadway for the last couple of years - Hollywood films from the '80's and '90's. The other source - song collections of a given artist or group - has hopefully reared its ugly head for the last time with the merciful closing of the Tharp/Dylan vehicle "The Times They Are A-Changin'." (Don't forget, I subscribe fully to the [title of show] theory that you don't have to actually see a show to criticize it.)

So, we're presented a possible book-end to (also soon to close) "The Wedding Singer." And, don't let your guard down yet, "Legally Blonde" is scheduled to open at The Palace early next year.



I had heard much of the buzz about this show - lukewarm notices out of town, changes and adjustments going in from time to time, all with the hopes of finding the formula for a cash-cow style Broadway hit. (BTW, there is no such formula - duh!)


I broke down and bought a ticket. The cast did include some people I believe to be talented, including my fellow former-Columbia, SC-resident, Jenn Colella. Will Chase also brings a strong performing reputation to the proceedings.

Imagine my disappointment when I open my playbill to find a half-page of substitutions, the most disheartening of which was that Mr. Chase would not be performing. Had I paid full price for the ticket, I might have tried for a refund (which probably would not have happened, since Mr. Chase's name does not appear above the title). I'm a good boy scout, so I'll stick it out. Ms. Colella was performing so all was not lost. (Another aside, the Asian chorus-boys who sat behind me thoroughly enjoyed every single moment of the evening.)

For the two of you who might not know the premise of the story, Rob owns an old-style record store in Brooklyn. His girlfriend Laura has just broken up with him and he's not really sure why. His employees at the record store demand the kind of museum-like worship of vinyl from their customers that they practice themselves, meaning they spend most of their time running people off because they want to buy something by Celine Dion.

When the book of High Fidelity was released, vinyl albums had been long-replaced by compact discs and MP3 players were just starting to find an audience. David Lindsay-Abaire's book places the time of this musical in "the recent past." This allows for anachronisms and cheesy references from "fall into the Gap" to John Tesh's recording career, to "Titanic." It also takes quite a suspension of disbelief that this unsuccessful business hadn't closed already.

Rob, who quantifies his life in a series of "Top 5" lists eventually has a moment of true introspection and recognizes the jerk he really is, so boy gets girl back at the end of the story. Toss in a couple of bizarre characters, Barry, who's been trying to start a progressive rock band for 7 years and never got a response from his poster for it in the store. Dick, the painfully introverted geek with no personality and fewer friends. Liz, the friend of both Rob and Laura who introduced them. Ian, Rob and Laura's former neighbor, an overaged hippie, massuer, and interventionist whose greatest achievement seems to have been the intervention of Kurt Cobain. And, the most pathetic man in the world (TMPMITW) who visits the store once a week, just to look at the truly valuable and collectible 45's that Rob has accumulated over the years.

Filling in for the role of Rob was John Patrick Walker. Mr. Walker certainly looked the part and made a concerted and noble effort to rise to the occasion. His vocal style did not, however, accompany him. The pastiche mish-mash of a pop-rock score by Tom Kitt required a rocker, if not, at least a rocker-wannabe to sing this role. Mr. Walker was likeable in the part, if not accomplished.

As Laura, Ms. Colella came across as a grown-up Amy Sedaris, responding to most things with a cock of the head as she spoke. She seemed to have much more fun when her character was part of Rob's imagination than when she was just Laura. It's too bad she didn't have more to do in this show.

In the "Jack Black" role of Barry, Jay Klaitz brings a similar irreverence without aping Mr. Black's performance. As Dick, Christian Anderson has just the right sweetness and innocence about him. He does have a nice song in Act I that reprises in Act II, "No Problem." The only problem I found is that the first time around, it lasts entirely too long.

I won't spend any more time on the "Springsteen" number other than to say I couldn't understand a word that was sung, let alone why it was part of the show. Rob never makes any other reference to The Boss in the show, so why is this number here?

Jeb Brown does what he can with the two-dimensional role he's been given. He's quite the trooper in Act II during scene when he comes to talk to Rob about leaving Laura alone. We see three or four musicalized versions of Rob's reaction to Ian, from Eminem to Gangsta Rap, all of which end up with Ian dead on the floor of the store. It's one of the more clever moments of staging in the show.

The show still feels long. I can't help but wonder that they would do well to cut another 30 minutes out of the show, cancel the intermission and hope for the best.

When all was said and done, I kept asking myself why this was onstage. For a play to be effective, its premise should include concepts that are inherently theatrical. This means that a live stage performance is the ideal and most effective way to tell the story. I don't see where that fits here.

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