Review: High Fidelity at A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre at Washington University

Categories: Arts, Music

What: High Fidelity
Where: A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre at Washington University (6445 Forsyth Boulevard)
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday (June 12 to July 5).
Cost: Tickets are $10 to $18 with discounts for students and seniors, and they can be obtained by calling MetroTix at 314-534-1111. For more information visit www.newlinetheatre.com.

One Great Evening with a Vinyl Fetishist
Full disclosure: I'm white, I'm in my 30s, I'm in a long-term relationship, and I spend far too much money on my music collection. I also have no idea what I'm doing with my life, I loathe my job most days, and I have a series of strange lumps that grow under my skin but above the muscle that cause me some small concern. But, as alluded to earlier, I have a rather extensive music collection – and most days, that's enough to make all the difference in my dreary life.

Please note that the use of the word "collection" and not "library." Librarians file and categorize, collectors obsess. It's a significant distinction, and one that Rob (Jeffery M. Wright), the owner of old-school record store Champion Vinyl, understands and embraces. The only difference between Rob and myself – other than his fictional status – is that Rob's live-in girlfriend, Laura (Kimi Short) is leaving him. Oh, and she's leaving behind the mix tapes he's lovingly made for her over the years. This is a rejection not just of him, but of his taste and his very soul, and it's killing him softly.


Photo by MICHAEL C. DAFT

High Fidelity, the musical based on the Nick Hornby novel of the same name, is not so much the story of Rob and Laura mending their relationship, but of Rob navigating a crucial passage of his development as a person: You can't make someone else happy unless you are yourself able to be happy. Or, in hipster-musical-allusive terms, "the love you make is equal to the love you take."

Set to music inspired by some of the greatest rock & roll and soul songs of the past 40 years, this tough little coming of age story about an arrested adolescent discovering that you can grow up without selling out or abandoning your youthful passion, seemed like a pretty sure bet for stage success.

Strangely, High Fidelity was a muffled flop on Broadway. Are Rob's obsessive nature and skewed priorities too unusual for a mainstream audience to empathize with? Are the songs, as one reviewer noted archly, number one on the top five list of most forgettable musical numbers? Is it just a lackluster story? New Line Theatre's production, the first regional outing for this show since its initial failure, would argue that perhaps the show wasn't presented by the right company.

New Line's version is brimming with joy, the lyrics are sharp and funny, and the music is riddled with in-jokes and references to the actual pop songs that substitute for Rob's emotional life.

It's a very, very good show that has some problems still.

Ian, the hippie douche bag (played with Massengill-strength effectiveness by Robb Kennedy) with whom Laura hooks up, is hilarious in small doses, but tiresome by the second act. Rob's rapprochements with his ex-girlfriends are handled too quickly, in one song; if you're unfamiliar with either the film or the book, this song becomes a throwaway.

High Fidelity is also hampered by the inherent sexism of Hornby's novel, specifically the under-written female characters. This is a man's, man's, man's world, and the ladies receive short shrift dramatically. Laura is stuck in full-on mope for most of the show, and her friend Liz (Nikki Glenn) is similarly trapped in full-on bitch mode. The ex-girlfriends act as the chorus, but their personalities are reduced merely to outfits. Only in the gloriously funny duet "I Slept With Someone" is Laura able to express some real emotion, and Short makes the most of her moment.

The material treats the men much better. Wright breathes a rumpled, resentful life into Rob early on. He delivers a blistering performance of "Desert Island All-Time Top Five Breakups," a petulant "fuck you" song to the departed Laura; but Wright's bravado is deflated in the final bars of the song, revealing ever-so-briefly the pain Rob actually feels. This pain is later given full voice by Wright when he discloses what he did to precipitate Laura finally walking out on him. All the anger displayed in "Top Five" is back, but directed at himself as Wright barks out the universal post-fight regret, "I want to shove the words back in," and the defeated and disgusted look that smears his features when he shares his failure to do so is worth the price of admission. In this moment Rob passes from likable to loveable, because there's something more to him than just "wry slacker with cool taste" – there's heart.

Even Rob's employees, the winsome Dick (Aaron Lawson) and the snide Barry (Zachary Allen Farmer), are allowed some growth: Dick acquires a girlfriend of his own, and Barry drops his "nothing matters" façade and joins a band to make his own music. Both Lawson and Farmer deliver great performances, but Farmer's Barry is simply outstanding. Able to convey his absolute disgust for everyone not named "Barry" with an eloquent eye-roll, Farmer is a raging prick and yet still likeable.

Director Scott Miller makes the dude-centric viewpoint work by playing to it. The small, stage-less playing space of the Hotchner becomes the inside of Rob's head, a black hole where the record store, his apartment, his personal soundtrack and the audience all orbit each other slowly, locked in the same long-playing groove. Watch the action carefully and you'll notice Laura and the shop's regular customers lurking together at the back of the stage while Rob stands at the forefront; the girlfriend and the customers are, jointly, background to his very important life. The final number (''Turn the World Off") takes place in the same location with the same characters, but with significantly different positioning of people, a final visual cue that Rob's a better person, emotionally and spiritually, than he was when the show began.

With music being the focus of Rob's life, High Fidelity is aided greatly by a live band of rock instruments: Guitars, bass, drums and keyboard. Conductor Chris Petersen and company do a bang-up job of hitting all the reference points, some of which are nefariously hard to identify, even for veteran trainspotters. (Is that a shade of Deep Purple in "She Goes?" I'm still not sure.) The music's homage to real-world rock songs achieves perfect pitch when Bruce Springsteen arrives to provide Rob guidance in the greatest Springsteen song Springsteen never wrote, "Goodbye and Good Luck." Todd Micali's portrayal of the Boss is of "Born in the USA" vintage, and all the tendons in his arms and neck are stretched taut as ship's hawsers as he belts the lyrics, then counts off, Boss-fashion, an unnecessary but hilarious reprise of the chorus. It's the sort of joke Rob loves, and the sort of joke all the Rob's of the world will find intensely satisfying.

High Fidelity's initial failure was maybe the result of this sort of joke. How many Rob's are in a Broadway audience? The answer to that riddle is now, thankfully, "who cares?"

New Line Theatre brings the show to a college campus black-box theatre, an ideal reflection of the show's youthful feel and self-absorbed hero. The tough little coming of age story is now allowed to shine, and it's very bright indeed.

- Paul Friswold

Correction appended: The original post of this blog erroneously neglected to include photographer Michael C. Daft's photo credit. The RFT regrets the error.


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