Book by David Lindsay-Abaire.
Lyrics by Amanda Green.
Music by Tom Kitt.
Directed & Choreographed by Christopher Pazdernik.
Produced by Refuge Theatre Project.
Playing at “Refuge Records,” 1415 N Ashland Ave.
Entertaining Pop-Rock Musical Comedy.
For those who appreciated the 2000 screen adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity: imagine, say, that ten years after the end of that movie, Rob Gordon’s poor business practices and the neighboring competitor, Reckless Records, finally drive his Championship Vinyl out of business; and imagine Rob’s wife Laura comes home one day after working hard at her law firm and finds Rob, as usual, drinking himself into a sad melancholy at the loss of his dream job; and she, frustrated for having married a stunted adolescent, upbraids him for his lack of responsibility and motivation—“Rob, you know music. Why not just—I don’t know—use that knowledge and make something of yourself?” Rob, of course, sulks at this (as if to a camera), and, confiding to no one, mumbles, “She’s right, you know, but I won’t tell her. Tell you the truth, I’m almost forty now and I’m ashamed that I’m still a delinquent.”
Then, as he continues to drink into the night (on the couch, where he’s been relegated), he pulls out some old book full of his rambling soliloquies to himself and gets the drunken idea of turning his story into a musical. “I’ve got a story,” he speaks to no one, “and I like music. Why not make a musical?” But then he catches himself—“I know what you’re thinking: a Broadway musical goes against all my proto-hipster principles: it’s spectacle over substance; broad comedy over earnestly drawn, idiosyncratic characters; generic, mass-accessible pop-rock tunes over personal, angst-written classics—in other words, it’s selling out. I get it. But, heck, I’m almost forty and it’s the new millennium: principles are for idealistic youth who don’t worry about social security benefits, and selling-out, well, that’s become something of an art form unto itself.”
So Rob writes in a feverish, drunken blaze all night, and by daybreak he’s finished a musical he titles “High Fidelity.” He brings it Broadway: it lasts 13 shows. But then he says, “Forget Broadway! What do they know? They’ve been paying to see Phantom for decades. I’ll take my show to Chicago, where it was born!” And Chicago—a place where poor Broadway productions come to thrive on low budget—absolutely loves it.
That is, they love Refuge Theatre Project’s production of it, directed and choreographed by Christopher Pazdernik—love it so much it’s now being remounted after last year’s enormous success. And who can blame them? It has nothing of the intimate charm and adolescent melancholy of the film—but it is sonorously catchy (if forgettable), energetically entertaining, and good-ol’ comedic fun! Looks like Rob got it right: nobody cares he’s effectively sold-out and hewn the soul from his story. (Rob, by the way, is doing very well, now.)
The story of High Fidelity is quite simple: Rob (Maxwell J. DeTogne) is a late-twenties, selfish loser who has just been dumped by his lawyer girlfriend Laura (Liz Chidester); and after two-and-a-half hours, 16 songs, and two words (“I’m sorry”), he finally gets her back, because this is musical comedy and infidelity, insensibility, and narcissism only require a tight chorus to cure.
But this is a musical comedy and not the movie, and in that respect Director Pazdernik’s remounted production makes successful work of his material: the 20-40s contingent will find their funny bones pleasantly tickled with a steady stream of irony, situational gags, and clever rock songs. Older, or mature audiences, however, might wish to save their money for the Lyric’s My Fair Lady or Paramount’s Sweeney Todd, two upcoming productions of more substantial merit.
While High Fidelity’s comedy is all good and fun (though not all PC-clean, for those inclined to offense), the heart of the musical’s story nonetheless flounders under its continuous medley of comedy and pop-rock tunes; for underneath these there is supposedly an arc of Rob’s “personal growth” toward maturity, in its fruition symbolized by his final declaration of apology to Laura. But, whether due to the writing, directing, or the performances, that transition goes virtually unnoticeable, Rob’s character coming across unredeemably sleazy and his final apology seeming insincere.
A contributing factor is certainly DeTogne’s portrayal of Rob. Throughout the production he embodies more a persona than a character, possessing the emotional distance and energy more akin to one headlining a conference than to one who is confessing his intimate, inner thoughts. This never slackens, and neither does any genuine emotion set in in his portrayal, and so I never felt sympathy with Rob. Instead, I found him quite annoying and was even upset at the end when Laura accepted his apology, which, like I mentioned, seemed insincere for the above reasons.
While Chidester finds some sweet sympathy and laughs in her performance of Laura, the supporting characters definitely carry the weight of the show. Nick Druzbanski and Lewis Rawlinson as Rob’s friends/co-workers Barry and Dick, respectively, assume personalities not unlike their movie-actor counterparts, though Druzbanski seemed to bring a bit more of his own comedic flair to his role. Noah Berman, who plays The Most Pathetic Man In The World and who cameos as Bruce Springsteen, is even more amusing in his affected style, particularly as The Boss. Jameson Wentworth, too, is also amusing in his parody of the Eastern-spiritualistic health-nut Ian.
Most praiseworthy, however, is Caitlin Jackson’s performance as Rob’s and Laura’s mutual friend Liz. She seemed the only actress to have done the work to emotionally ground her character in a unique, more fully realized identity, authentic to her. This gave her the uncanny aura of a real person living among caricatured personalities—not to mention that it gave her comedic moments more motivational weight.
Set in a tiny found space converted to look and feel like a real record shop (wonderfully realized by Michelle Manni), and accompanied by an impressive live band, Refuge Theatre Project’s immersive remount of High Fidelity lives up to its last-year’s acclaim: it is infectiously catchy, cleverly comedic, and distractingly entertaining. Those more interested in heart than spectacle, however, will find themselves bored by intermission and disappointed by the end. The biggest joke, though, is that High Fidelity was made into a musical at all—a genre derided by the spirit of the film. But too few will mind this irony amidst the rollicking pop-rock and belly laughs of its musical successor.
Reviewed on 29 January 2017.
Playing at “Refuge Records,” 1415 N Ashland Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $30. For tickets and information, or visit RefugeTheatre.com. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 6:00 p.m., with additional performances Mondays February 6 and 20 at 8:00 p.m., through March 25th. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.