Stage and Cinema film and theatre reviews
Broadway commentary of High Fidelity
by John Topping
High Fidelity
opened December 7, 2006
at the Imperial Theatre
open run
It wasn't long into the show before our staff reviewer already felt somewhat helpless about writing a review of "High Fidelity," the new Broadway musical that is based on the film of the same name that is based on the novel of the same name by Nick Hornby.  "I'm not the audience for this show," he lamented, discouraged by every moment presented on the stage and feeling a bit disparaged that he could not give a fair and balanced review.  I happened to see the show with him and I am a little closer to the demographic that it's aimed at (but only a little), so I offered to take the reins this time around and write a commentary.
It does beg the question:  who exactly is this aimed at? "Sophisticated Theatre-goers" should be crossed off the list.  Immediately.  That leaves (a) people who go to Broadway musicals because they are musicals running on Broadway, (b) die-hard fans of the movie "High Fidelity," and (c) people who have seen and loved other entries in the current trend of turning reasonably popular films into Broadway musicals, such as last season’s "The Wedding Singer."  As a matter of fact, those in category (c) are almost guaranteed to like it as, on the way out, we overheard a fellow audience member say to her friend, "Honestly?  I liked it more than The Wedding Singer."  (It was interpreted as praise.)
Indeed, the audience we shared the experience of watching this performance with did seem to be eating it up.  However, we were not convinced that it was an entirely "real" audience.  They were way too excited about being there before the lights went down, and a tad too enthusiastic about the show along the way.  True, a show like "Spamalot" had an even more overenthusiastic audience when I saw it, but that was an audience of overzealous fans of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," cultivated over the course of 30 years, who had somehow earned the right to annoyingly laugh at the jokes the moment the first syllable was uttered, long before the joke had a chance to actually BE funny.  Unless "High Fidelity" is an infinitely more popular film than I'd ever realized, this reeked of being a heavily papered house.  Where they came from we could only speculate (and did), but it was obvious that there were interconnected parties all around, which we picked up from such telltale signs as people in the boxes waving and shout-talking to people in the front mezzanine, and other similarly excited communications from one part of the theatre to another.  It seemed that whoever was in charge of the phone tree gave very specific orders to exude enthusiasm as the price of their freebie ticket.  But, like an untalented understudy who hasn't been given adequate direction, we didn't believe them.
Before continuing, a brief pause for the plot.  The lead character Rob, played by Will Chase, runs an independent record store (yes, the vinyl kind) in Brooklyn (by way of Chicago in the movie by way of London in the novel), where independent artists and independent music labels are championed, and the independently-minded male music mavens hang out and "work" (the store doesn’t make enough money to pay them, but they don’t care).  There are only two actual customers – and not just for theatrical economy.  Other would-be customers are chased out by Barry (Jay Klaitz) – the self-appointed Nazi of musical taste – if they dare ask for the wrong kind of music (such as the dreaded John Tesh). 
Rob is an avid list-maker of the Top 5 [fill in the blank]s To Bring On A Desert Island.  His primary obsession is the Top 5 Break-ups of his life, a compendium of ladies who left him (for it’s always they who leave him) and left him hurting bad, listed chronologically.  He is currently feeling freshly wounded by Laura (Jenn Colella), the most recent babe he has driven away, and tries to fool himself into thinking that she is #6 in the line of All Time Top Break-ups, in an effort to psyche himself out that she isn’t that important to him.  But she budges her way into the #5 spot (a lot of the story is spent in his imagination), which intensifies his obsession with getting her back into his life, even as he tries to let go of her and move forward with his life.
Now back to the audience: not all of the enthusiasm lacked sincerity.  The two teenagers sitting behind us, whom I don't think were part of the imported group, emitted loud, genuine guffaws at several moments, and seemed to be loving it.  In fact, if there was any doubt that they were loving it, a particular sequence caused one of them to double over, clap hands, and declare out loud more than once, "I love it!"  This involved a moment when Rob's current arch-nemesis Ian (Jeb Brown), a tofu-eating, meditating, chakra-balancing, new age-type antagonist who likes to massage too much, and who is sleeping with Laura, takes it upon himself to visit the record store and tell him to stop calling.  Rob’s imagination rewinds and replays three times as he fantasizes his retort to Ian in three different styles of music, culminating as a hard-core urban rapper who kills the m*******cker and promises in repeated refrain to piss on his grave.  I didn't quite love this whimsical moment, but it happens to be the highlight of the show and is hard not to, at least, like it (though I think our forlorn reviewer managed without a problem).
Although the show is mostly flat and uninspired, it's not without some entertainment value (though it falls far short of $110 worth).  But for whatever entertainment it achieves, it is ultimately not big enough for the theatre it's in.  Although it's not a gargantuan, behemoth stage like the Minskoff, which is too big for any show short of a Cirque de Soleil extravaganza, it's nonetheless a hefty space to occupy, and "High Fidelity" is too small-scale in tone and execution to fill it.  We shouldn’t be quite so conscious of how long it takes to walk from one side of the proscenium to the other.  There were many jokes that would have worked much better had they been allowed to land instead of being sold to us.  Small moments seemed to be straining to reach the upper balcony, even though all were heavily miked.  Three seasons ago in the same location, Hugh Jackman's performance in “The Boy From Oz” was big enough to fill the entire theatre in that otherwise fairly flimsy evening. "Avenue Q" is another example of a show that was probably bursting with charm in its Off Broadway run, but plateaus early on in its current Broadway home (not that they don't pack'em in, of course) at the John Golden Theatre (which probably would have been just about the perfect size for "High Fidelity," come to think of it).
That would have improved it, but it would not have saved it.  “High Fidelity” simply flounders as it struggles against itself to rise to the entertainment it longs to be.  You don’t really care about any of the characters – though the book by the over-praised David Lindsay-Abaire is not as much of a shameful hack job as Charles Busch’s book of “Taboo” was a few seasons back – and so you don’t really care about even the best of the songs (by Tom Kitt and Amanda Green).  Poor Will Chase has the hapless job of carrying a show that simply isn't working, and consequently comes off looking the worst.  The rest of the cast gets more of a chance to shine, although the material is never commensurate with their talent.  I found myself noticing and appreciating random inventiveness all the way down to some of the actors with no lines. Of course, I was watching them because the things on the stage that I was supposed to be watching weren't interesting to me.
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