'High Fidelity' Is Only at a Low-Grade Fever
There's nothing to particularly dislike about High Fidelity, a musical based on the 1995 Nick Hornby novel that also inspired a 2000 American film. But there's also nothing to particularly like about this watered-down, lukewarm version of a 35-year-old record-shop owner's progression from a seriously afflicted sufferer of Peter Pan complex to a mature adult.
Not that director Anthony Galleran and his game cast don't try; there just isn't a great deal of interest in the material to begin with. Which is surprising because the book was a huge hit for first-time novelist Hornby (who writes about music for The New Yorker), and the film starring John Cusack is a keystone for many a dude wrestling with issues of commitment and growing up.
Whereas the material works in those genres, it fits awkwardly in the realm of the musical. And that might be because even though the score tries to mirror the fascination with popular music embodied by its main character, Rob Gordon, offering everything from Aretha Franklin-tinged soul to Bruce Springsteen's workingman grunts, it's still a stage musical. And that means we have a very real story of a melancholic guy desperately trying to sort through the debris of failed relationships in an effort to figure himself out, punctuated repeatedly by song-and-dance numbers that render the journey kind of silly. But through direct addresses to the audience, crazy daydream sequences, some cleverness in David Lindsay-Abaire's script, and a handful of standout performances, there's enough here to at least hold one's attention, even if you might forget about it moments after it ends. Consider it theater you can listen to while running on a treadmill.
Rob (a talented Sheldon Morley) is a 35-year-old stoner wrestling with both his career path of hawking vinyl records in an old-school shop and his inability to sustain a lasting relationship. When his latest squeeze, Laura (an equally effective Tara Pitt), breaks up with him and moves in with an ingratiating, New Age guru, Ian (an amusingly over-the-top Jeffrey Rockey), Rob begins revisiting the wreckage of the battlefields of his past relationships, from short-lived middle-school romances and rebound flings to women hopelessly out of his league and even one whose dalliance with him turned her into a lesbian.
Along for the ride are two socially awkward store employees: Dick (Max Orbita), a painfully shy music geek, and Barry (Topher Mauerhan), an obnoxiously overbearing music snob. These guys supply the comic relief, and both actors are up to the task, with Orbita perfectly capturing the hopeless pining of his character and Mauerhan's comically inventive turn as a guy who, though he doesn't come close to looking or sounding the part, winds up pulling off both Bruce Springsteen and Marvin Gaye.
The show's core dilemma is that we're supposed to care very deeply about Rob's struggle. But that's hard because he's kind of a self-absorbed prick who, as one character says, tends to view other people as supporting characters in his story. Also making it difficult to empathize with Rob is the fact that, excluding his caustic wit and encyclopedic knowledge of pop music, he doesn't have any real game, yet, based on the women he has knocked boots with, he has no problem pulling sexily attractive trim. In that sense, High Fidelity seems like male wish fulfillment—or a case of slackers taking over the world, and both ring a bit hollow.
Also getting in the way of the story is the fact that a traffic cop needs to be hired to direct onstage movement. There are at least 15 bodies on the small Hunger Artists stage (along with three quite competent musicians, who are unlisted in the program: fix that!), and things can get pretty congested. That physical overload might contribute to the ensemble's general sense of tentativeness and jitteriness. Only the saucy, riveting Katt McLaren seems to fully own her moments, nearly stealing every scene she's in.
Much as the film was a dude flick, something that resonated with any guy struggling with the transition from the extended teenage years of their 20s to rapidly approaching middle age, this is a straight-dude musical about serious issues of masculine emotional commitment. While emotional commitment is certainly something a great deal of musicals are concerned with, the last time we checked, masculinity isn't something that immediately springs to mind when thinking of the genre. And High Fidelity does nothing to make one think such a thing belongs on the musical stage.
This review appeared in print as "Low-Fever Pitch: High Fidelity at the Hunger Artists won't make any Top Five list—but it won't make a Five Worst list, either."
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