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Chicago by John Olson

High Fidelity
Route 66 Theatre Company at Piper's Alley Theatre

High Fidelity
Michael Mahler, Stef Tovar and
Jonathan Wagner

With Chicago sending so many productions to New York over the past two years, it may be the next step is to forward some Broadway flops back to Chicago for re-tooling. That would seem to be the idea behind this production of this musical that lasted just 13 performances on Broadway in the fall of 2006. The show has been re-imagined to fit a nightclub-like venue (mostly theater seating, but with a few cocktail tables in front and a bar in the back). It's closer to the sort of place the show's grunge-rock-loving characters would patronize than the 1,400-seat Imperial Theatre where High Fidelity played its brief run. The cast is not downsized—it's about the same size as the Broadway production, although some of them double as the onstage band.

When Rob, Dick and Barry—the owner and employees of a record store selling only classic rock records on vinyl—take up instruments and sing, it seems they're telling their stories through the sort of music they revere. Rob, the owner of Championship Records has a problem with commitment and as a result has just broken up with his girlfriend Laura. Barry dreams of starting a rock band even though he doesn't play an instrument and Dick is painfully shy. As in the film version of Nick Hornby's novel, store owner Rob speaks directly to the audience, so it's not too much of a leap to go from Rob's narrative asides and vocal solos to believing Dick and Barry are singing directly to us about their issues as well.

The source material makes perfect sense as the basis for a musical. The plot, as I recall from seeing the 2000 feature film starring John Cusack, was pretty thin to begin with so there's plenty of time for songs, and the content—more about feelings than narrative—lends itself well to musicalization. Composer Tom Kitt has appropriated '80s and '90s rock genres accurately enough to evoke the music the guys talk about throughout the show, and Amanda Green's clever lyrics capture the irony and folly of these overgrown boys. For those who know the scene and love the music High Fidelity concerns itself with, the musical is a fun immersion into that world for a couple of hours.

The set, designed by Angie Weber Miller, places a fairly realistic setting of the store center stage, with room for the band in the back and record bins downstage. The store is flanked by Rob's bedroom on stage right and Laura's stage left, with projections by Marty Higginbotham and Bobby Richards over the beds. With a cast of 15 on stage, including the band's drummer, this is a full-scale musical even though it's staged in a small space. There's not much room on stage for out-and-out dancing, but the cast moves nicely under the supervision of director-choreographer Peter Amster.

The story of Rob's growth from self-centered lout to a guy capable of commitment and other adult responsibilities is not really well-developed in David Lindsay-Abaire's book. (To my recollection, there wasn't much of that in the film either). As a result, there's not the sort of journey that fully earns its feel-good cathartic musical comedy finale, but we have some fun with the guys along the way. Stef Tovar as Rob is all angst and bitterness, soulfully rocking out his feelings in song. The founder and artistic director/producer of this company, Tovar may not have made the wisest choice in casting himself in the lead, as he reads on stage in this role as late 30s—an age at which men suffering from Peter Pan syndrome lose a lot of their charm. Together with the fact that, as written, Rob's tough to like in the first place, it's a challenge to keep the audience on his side.

The hapless employees are a lot more fun to watch, maybe because we don't feel the same need to root for their happiness. Jonathan Wagner as Barry channels the movie's Jack Black as Barry, but does it so well you don't mind. Michael Mahler is a hoot as the sweet but nerdy Dick. Derek Hasenstab sympathetically shows us why the store's most loyal customer is dubbed by the guys as "The Most Pathetic Man in the World." Dana Tretta nicely handles the responsibilities of Rob and Laura's best friend Liz, especially in the clever bit in which she learns of the event that caused their breakup. Mick Weber is amusingly obnoxious as Laura's current squeeze, the self-styled new age guru Ian.

As Laura, Tricia Small, a newcomer to the Chicago theater scene, has the sophistication and presence to be the high-powered attorney that really would be too good for Rob. She gets to show us her impressive voice and presence in only one song, "Number Five with a Bullet," which is not exactly performed in character, but can more accurately said to be sung by Rob's fantasy of Laura—a vindictive woman borne more of Rob's resentment toward her than her actual personality. Laura is not given enough stage time to help us learn much about her relationship with Rob and why it didn't work out. This may be a fault of the source material as well, but it's what keeps the audience from being as invested in the story as it is amused by the quirky characters and aroused by the rock score.

Still, with its droll characters, high energy score and contemporary resonance, High Fidelity seems a much better show than one that deserved only a 2-week run on Broadway. If all goes according to plan, this production (which, according to the program, though not the script, returns the setting to Chicago, as in the movie) will beat that record by some 32 performances.

High Fidelity will plays Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4:30 and 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m., through October 11, at Piper's Alley Theatre (in the Tony and Tina's Wedding space) at 230 W. North Avenue, Chicago. For tickets or more information visit www.hifichicago.com or call the box office at 312-664-8844.


Photo: Johnny Knight

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-- John Olson



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