nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 3, 2006
As I watched the mostly enjoyable first act of High Fidelity, the new Broadway musical based on Nick Hornsby's novel and its subsequent film version, I found myself really rooting for it to be a hit, and for its leading man Will Chase to emerge as a bona fide theatre star. Amiable, boyishly handsome, and loaded with energy, Chase feels to me like the chief asset of this show, portraying Rob, the quixotic but callow slacker who runs "the last real record store in the world" and is having difficulties with his current romantic interest, Laura.
But after intermission, the focus began to shift away from Chase's character, and an increasingly scattershot, increasingly vulgar pall fell over the proceedings. I sensed creators (not necessarily only librettist David Lindsay-Abaire, composer Tom Kitt, and lyricist Amanda Green, though they must have been involved) desperately trying to "fix" a show that may well not have been all that broken and, in any event, definitely not succeeding. Forgetting your leading man, especially when you've got one as good as Chase, is no way to turn a doubtful proposition into a hit.
But for all intents and purposes, Rob disappears from much of High Fidelity's second half. By the finale, resolution of his love story feels almost like an afterthought.
It's so hard to make a new Broadway musical nowadays, so any failed attempt kind of diminishes us all. This one's a major disappointment.
The story revolves around Rob, a nice but immature guy who owns a record store in Brooklyn. His live-in girlfriend Laura leaves him at the top of the show, for reasons that we eventually recognize are fairly serious (though they are never actually addressed by either of them in the show). The engine of the musical is essentially: will Rob grow up and win back Laura? The ending never really feels in doubt (and I've not seen the original film or read the novel, so I don't know if that's true for them).
Subplots involve Rob's two employees, who are even more immature than he is. Dick, a shy nerdy type, is tentatively wooing a customer who (horrors) likes John Tesh's music. Barry, borderline obnoxious, wants to form a rock band. Eventually both of these guys get their wishes, too, although in the case of Barry, in that problematic second act, his story takes on far more significance than it deserves.
Lindsay-Abaire's smart conceit is that the show takes place inside Rob's head; he talks to us a lot, and we understand that what plays out on stage is really what he's remembering and sorting through in his mind. Kitt and Green use Rob's passion/obsession for music and top-five lists to create lots of pastiche rock songs in their score, which frequently works well. But in Act Two, they lose track of their concept in two crowd-pleasing but inappropriate numbers, a coarse instant replay sequence that goes on far too long ("Conflict Resolution," rooted in music video) and a presumably climactic song that's bizarrely assigned to a faux Bruce Springsteen ("Goodbye and Good Luck") when by rights it belongs to our hero.
The show seems to cry out for dancing, and in Christopher Gatelli it has a talented young choreographer and in Andrew C. Call it has a terrific lead dancer ripe for a big break. But both are severely underused.
Meanwhile, director Walter Bobbie demonstrates nearly zero affinity for the material. Big numbers (like the opening, "The Last Real Record Store," and the first act closer, "Nine Percent Chance," both authentic rousers) are interrupted multiple times to advance the plot, rendering them incapable of building in a way that's satisfying for the audience. Anna Louizos's set, which is a colorful, wizardly toy box that morphs playfully from Rob's apartment to his store to various Brooklyn cityscapes, is never integrated into the action the way it needs to be: it fits in with the idea that we're inside Rob's head, but Bobbie seems determined to pull us away at every opportunity.
Chase and Call aside, the smallish ensemble is uneven. Jenn Collella makes Laura such a cold fish that it's hard to care if Rob wins her back. Christian Anderson (Dick) and Jay Klaitz (Barry) overplay their characters' gooniness, with the latter particularly guilty of too much mugging. Jeb Brown is suitably annoying as the Other Man, but Rachel Stern seems badly miscast as Liz, the somewhat duplicitous confidante to both Rob and Laura. Emily Swallow makes a solid impression as Rob's rebound one-night-stand, a singer named Marie LaSalle (she has a showy, funny number called "Ready to Settle").
And while I'm speaking of casting, I have to say that I was surprised that a show set in contemporary Brooklyn with 20 named characters in the program wouldn't have at least one African American or Asian American among them. (I'm not saying the characters need to be explicitly identified this way, just that the ensemble could more accurately reflect the diversity of NYC.)
In the end, my attempts at analyzing where and how High Fidelity has gone awry may be useful or may be worthless. Here's what I'm sure of: a show I started out liking at the beginning fizzled before my eyes before the final curtain went down. And that's a shame.