In December 2006, two new rock musicals opened on Broadway three days apart. One was Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s Spring Awakening, based on the 1891 drama by German expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind—a dark study of teen alienation featuring suicide, rape, and abortion. The other was High Fidelity by David Lindsay-Abaire, Tom Kitt, and Amanda Green: a lightweight comedy adapted from Nick Hornby’s 1995 best seller and the popular movie it spawned, about a thirtysomething record store owner named Rob who tries to win back the heart of the woman who dumped him.
Spring Awakening ran more than two years. High Fidelity closed after ten days. It never had a chance after a scathing New York Times review called it one of the “Top 5 . . . All-Time Most Forgettable Musicals”—a riff on a running bit in the show concerning Rob’s propensity for compiling top-five lists of everything from songs about death to romantic breakups.
Now High Fidelity is receiving its Chicago debut from Route 66 Theatre Company, in the Pipers Alley space previously occupied by Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding. Reconfigured as a cabaret theater, with table seating and a cash bar, the venue is well suited to the informality of Peter Amster’s likable, rough-edged staging. Where the Broadway production locates the action in Brooklyn, Amster has moved it to Chicago—which is also where the movie, starring and cowritten by Evanston-bred John Cusack, is set. (It was coproduced by Cusack’s New Crime Productions, which began life as an off-off-Loop theater company whose messy but creative efforts here in the late 80s and early 90s included an adaptation of Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that starred Jeremy Piven.)
High Fidelity unfolds primarily in Championship Vinyl, Rob’s money-losing store, where music fans rummage through bins of LPs and hope for a glimpse of the classic 45s Rob keeps under the counter. His girlfriend, a corporate lawyer named Laura, has left him, leaving him to wallow in self-pity as he wonders why his relationships always fail. Predictably, Rob and Laura reunite after flings with other people, and even Rob’s loser assistants—shy, nerdy Dick and bratty, wisecracking Barry—find girlfriends of their own.
The inherent challenge for a musical about music snobs is that the music had better be damn good. Here, it’s just OK. Kitt’s original score consists of generic, sometimes clever songs in various styles—alt-rock, soul, R & B, rap, country, and Beatles-style raga rock—meant to evoke the characters’ musical world while poking fun at it. Laura’s hard-driving “Number 5 With a Bullet” sounds like a Heart hit, while Dick’s “Exit Sign” takes aim at Neil Young’s whining (an easy target if ever there was one), and Barry’s rousing “Goodbye and Good Luck” is a dead-on Bruce Springsteen send-up.
As in Spring Awakening, the cast of High Fidelity use hand mikes when musically expressing their inner feelings (while record-store customers turn into backup singers). The singing is energetic and committed, and the band is thoroughly competent, but the sound quality in the acoustically problematic venue is inconsistent, leading to occasional imbalance between vocals and instrumentals. And though Stef Tovar’s Rob and Tricia Small’s Laura are honest and heartfelt, their roles are too trite to make me care very much about them. Still, Tovar’s rendition of the ballad “Laura, Laura”—Rob’s long-overdue apology to his ex—is lovely.
Where High Fidelity succeeds is in its comic supporting performances. Michael Webber is very funny as Laura’s temporary love interest, Ian, a middle-aged New Age therapist whose main claim to fame is having facilitated an intervention with Kurt Cobain. Also amusing are Dana Tretta as Laura’s hyper friend Liz (the role played by Joan Cusack in the movie), Christin Boulette as a sexy rock singer who teaches Rob a lesson by using him the way he uses other women, and Derek Hasenstab as the regular customer Rob, Dick, and Barry have dubbed the Most Pathetic Man in the World (“I was in a rock band once . . .”).
Best of all are Michael Mahler and Jonathan Wagner as Dick and Barry—”the musical moron twins,” as Rob half-jokingly calls them. The pair, who also play guitar in the onstage band, nail their characters: emotionally stunted boy-men who hide their insecurities behind a wall of musical esoterica. Wagner—a near dead ringer for Jack Black, who played Barry in the movie—pretty much walks off with the second act thanks to his tongue-in-cheek Bruce Springsteen impersonation and his climactic rendition of the sultry soul spoof “Turn the World Off (And Turn You On).” For all its inadequacies, this High Fidelity can be diverting, good-natured entertainment. v