Stage Review: High Fidelity Gets New Life At New New Line Theatre
by Jeff Ritter
Published: June 26, 2012
John Cusack is one of my favorite actors, but I couldn't stand "High Fidelity," the 2000 movie based on the novel by Nick Hornby. It wasn't his fault, though. I have never cared for Jack Black and found him particularly ingratiating in the film. I find that I put myself in the main character's shoes when I watch a movie, and it frustrates me to no end that Cusack's Rob didn't clobber Black's Barry with the cash register and drag his sorry ass out of his store. How would I like the musical version of High Fidelity if I despised the film so much? As it turned out, the stage show is a vast improvement. I was able to get inside Rob's head, since that's precisely where the story takes place, and I found that his thought echoed my own. For me, that made all the difference.
High Fidelity, the musical by David Lindsay-Abaire (book), Tom Kitt (music) and Amanda Green (lyrics), didn't last long in its initial Broadway run. It has found new life at the New Line Theatre, housed on the south campus of Washington University in St. Louis. The theatre itself is intimate, probably not seating more than 30 people. But the stage goes right up to the front row of seats, making the audience feel like their almost extras in the cast. The set was designed to look like a classic record store. If you don't remember any musical media before compact discs, just Google it. I miss real record stores, spending hours flipping through albums and cassettes. The story of Rob's romantic tribulations takes place almost entirely in the store and the set suited the story perfectly.
The cast was outstanding. Rob is played by Jeffrey M. Wright, who projects a bit less of John Cusack's trademark melancholy and a bit more of a young, Paul Reiser's slightly acerbic style. I particularly liked his asides, where he'd step out of the narrative, walk right up to the rail, and address the audience directly. I always appreciate a good aside, and it seems like most plays and musicals avoid them altogether these days. Jeffrey personified the character of Rob the way I wish Cusack had. But where Cusack nearly always comes off as vulnerable, Wright had to work to overcome a sense of cool that he seems to naturally possess. Now I'd love to see Jeffrey play Paul Reiser--is there a musical based on Mad About You that I don't know about?
Thankfully, Zachary Allen Farmer bought Barry to life with enough restraint that the character was actually funny and not quite so exaggerated as Jack Black's rendition. He delivered his lines with a tinge of Black's caustic sarcasm but never felt like he was merely impersonating him. He still said the wrong thing at the wrong time nearly every time, but we all know somebody like that and we love them anyway. Zachary showed off a surprisingly strong singing voice in his solo near the end of the show. His featured song, "Turn the World Off," was one of my favorite numbers in this performance.
Mike Dowdy rounded out the record store staff, playing Dick, the shy, awkward fellow whose love life takes a sudden and surprising turn just as Rob's relationship goes south. Mike was terrific, playing the socially inept clerk to perfection and dazzling the audience with a forceful singing voice well-suited for musical theater. I hope to see Mike in a lead role someday--his acting and singing both left a strong impression.
The ladies in this show all did a fine job, though the show takes place inside a man's angst-ridden head and thus the women are relegated to moving the plot along according to Rob's point-of-view more than standing out on their own. Still, Kimi Short was exactly what I hoped for in the role of Laura, Rob's latest lost love. I could understand her frustration with Rob, and that made her more sympathetic. Talichia Noah played Liz, a friend to both of the star-crossed lovers who tries not to take sides until Rob's infidelity is revealed. She really stood out among the female voices in song. Not far behind her was Terrie Corolan as Anna, Dick's similarly awkward girlfriend. The scene where she invokes John Tesh drew heavy laughs. She also held her own with Mike Dowdy's powerful voice in a brief duet. I'd like to see her in a bigger role too.
Rounding out the cast was smarmy hippie self-help "expert" Ian (Aaron Allen), Lyle Lovett's ex on the rebound Marie LaSalle (Margeau Baue Steinau), and the chorus players: Todd Micali, Nicholas Kelly, Keith Thomson, Ryan Foizey, Chrissy Young, Taylor Pietz and Sarah Porter. In addition to ensemble vocals, most of these actors also play multiple roles, most notably Ryan Foizey as Neil Young and Todd Micali as a spot-on mid-1980s Bruce Springsteen that had me grinning from ear to ear.
The songs in this show may not immediately stick with you the way "Defying Gravity" from Wicked might. I found myself listening not so much to the words but to the style of the song. For example, in Barry's "Turn the World Off" there is definitely an undercurrent of Billy Joel there, "Keeping The Faith" I think. Liz drew on Aretha Franklin for "She Goes" and Laura's "Number 5 with a Bullet" channeled Pat Benatar. The scene where Ian confronts rob leads into a repeating mash-up of rap styles, noticably the Beastie Boys, with each replay bringing roars of laughter. I really liked that the songs were a pastiche of classic and modern rock and pop rather than actual hit songs. That worked in Rock of Ages, but would have been a bit too much here. Besides, that would have almost certainly invited an actual John Tesh number, and then I'd fine myself agreeing with Barry way too much and that would dull the role. The house band did a fantastic job, squeezed as they were into the record shop's "back office." The New Line Band consisted of pianist and conductor Justin Smolik, with D. Mike Bauer on lead guitar, Aaron Doerr on rhythm guitar, bassist Dave Hall, Clancy Newell on percussion and Jeffrey VanDiver on the keyboard.
My only regret with regards to the New Line Theatre's production of High Fidelity is that I couldn't find the time to see it sooner. The production ended its run this past weekend, so if you didn't get to see it, I encourage you to check out their line-up for the upcoming season. I expect I'll be a regular at the New Line Theatre much as I am at the Fox. Don't dismiss them as merely regional theater--when a production such as this nails it, Broadway takes notice. Director Scott Miller and his terrific cast have certainly made a believer out of me, and that was no easy feat considering how strongly I disliked the movie.