High Fidelity Music by Tom Kitt. Lyrics by Amanda Green. Book by David Lindsay-Abaire. Based on the novel "High Fidelity" by Nick Hornby and the Touchstone Pictures Film. Directed by Walter Bobbie. Choreography by Christopher Gattelli. Set design by Anna Louizos. Costume design by Theresa Squire. Lighting design by Ken Billington. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Orchestrations by Tom Kitt & Alex Lacamoire. Cast: Will Chase, Jenn Colella, Christian Anderson, Jay Klaitz, Jeb Brown, Rachel Stern, Emily Swallow, Jon Patrick Walker, Kirsten Wyatt, Justin Brill, Andrew C. Call, Matt Caplan, Caren Lyn Manuel, Anne Warren, Paul Castree, George Merrick, Betsy Morgan, Tom Plotkin, J.B. Wing..
The show music aficionado has had his say, now it's the rock devotee's turn, and on one thing they can both agree: vinyl is in.
Yes, Man in Chair, the Broadway musical doyen holding court in The Drowsy Chaperone, now has some up-to-date competition in the person of Rob Gordon. The thirtysomething slacker at the center of the new musical High Fidelity has a philosophy of rock much like Man in Chair's about cast recordings: The older, and the less CD-like, the better. It's hard to believe that two men so alike in dignity could represent factions that feud, in private and public (say, the Broadway stage), much like the Capulets and Montagues. But if ever there were a musical to unify them, it's this new one at the Imperial that, for better or worse, unites musical and romantic obsession into the best new musical comedy Broadway has seen this year.
Granted, the competition hasn't been stellar. As much as one might appreciate Man in Chair's inclinations, the fantasy world conjured by his favorite cast recording oozes post-modern commentary from every groove. As for The Wedding Singer, it believes laughs derive almost exclusively from ridiculing the trends of its 1980s setting and that feelings need by no less synthetic than the fashions. The more down-to-earth, straightforward High Fidelity was perhaps destined to win by default, but this show at its best never feels like settling.
The score, by Tom Kitt (music) and Amanda Green (lyrics), is an infectious approximation of a range of rock genres infinitely smarter and smoother than The Wedding Singer's parodic soundtrack. David Lindsay-Abaire's book cleverly plumbs the troubles of rock enthusiast Rob Gordon (Will Chase), still smarting from being dumped by his girlfriend Laura (Jenn Colella) and willing to do anything and everything necessary to win her back, in ways that skirt the sociopathic self-pity that make the hermetic Man in Chair little more than a victim of his own insecurities.
When the book and score really cohere, they electrify. The opening number, "The Last Real Record Store" (referring to Rob's Brooklyn specialty shop, Championship Vinyl) is an amazing synthesis of plot and character expressed through word, lyric, and melody that might be the best opening number of any musical this year. And the first-act finale, in which Rob and his go-nowhere clerks Dick (Christian Anderson) and Barry (Jay Klaitz) calculate their infinitesimal percentage chances of finding love and happiness, sends you to intermission on a supersonic jolt.
Were High Fidelity on only the first stop of a three-city out-of-town tryout, you might well be positive its producers had a huge hit on their hands. Unfortunately, as a finished product, it's a titanically promising disappointment.
While it touches on most of the basic points of its source material, the Nick Hornby novel and the Touchstone Pictures film adapted from it, the musical succeeds in identifying and amplifying only Rob and his cronies' overgrown childishness. You understand, both from the writing and especially Chase's dynamic performance, how Rob has let himself stagnate as a lover and an adult working in a record store that does its best to scare away customers.
But the core of the story, Rob and Laura's relationship, is tossed into the discount bin, and with it go High Fidelity's aspirations for first-rate rock-musical comedy fusion. Both rock songs and musicals strive to communicate feelings, but that's hard here: Laura is relegated to a bland, reactive supporting role that involves her taking up with a spiritualist named Ian (Jeb Brown), but doesn't define her role as the lynchpin of Rob's existence.
She's represented in shamefully few songs, most of which tell us more about other people than they tell us about her: "Number Five With a Bullet" finds her inside Rob's mind infiltrating his list of "Desert Island Top Five Breakups," while her "I Slept With Someone" pinpoints Ian's suppressive ordinariness but nothing about her own feelings. (The latter is, however, superior to Rob's version of the song, in which he crows about sleeping with a gripe-guitarist who slept with Lyle Lovett; it's the show's emotional, comedic, and musical nadir.) Rob and Laura's mutual friend, Liz (Rachel Stern), stands out more with the accusatory "She Goes" about Rob's predatory dating habits, and even Anderson and Klaitz contribute more fraternal charm than Laura does integrated romantic frisson.
Even Colella's stunning rock voice and considerable natural likeability - which seem more intense with every new Broadway show she does - can't rescue Laura from the status of glorified ensemble character. If this highlight's Rob's problem of looking beyond himself to see the person lying next to him, it does so too well: It gives Chase a wonderful starmaking opportunity, and you won't find a musical actor doing more energetic work this season, but without a focus for his pursuits, Rob is an incompletely realized musical lead.
Lindsay-Abaire, Kitt, and Green need to learn just what Rob must: There's more to life than him. Walter Bobbie directs with wit and flair, choreographer Christopher Gattelli contributes greatly to the show's kinetic appeal with some impressive dances, and Anna Louizos's set and Ken Billington's lighting properly capture the proper underground-concert atmosphere, but it's not enough to compensate for writing still two or three drafts away from satisfying in a Broadway house.
Yet in isolated moments, you sense glimmers of brilliance that make it impossible to dismiss the show outright. "The Last Real Record Store," for example, which salutes Rob's music, the people who love it, and - yes - even the people who don't as all constituting his own cherished, irreplaceable corner of the world. "I wouldn't want to change a thing," he sings; "In a world that's unreliable, these are rocks on which to cling." Show tune fans (maybe even Man in Chair) might well get misty-eyed listening to Rob and his friends sing so joyfully about the place that fulfills their musical desires, even as the demise of Footlight and Tower has robbed them of two of their own.
This show's ability to evoke commonality in such disparate groups as rock lovers and musical lovers is as admirable as it is rare. It's the tantalizing successes like these that suggest High Fidelity is housing a wonderful show just waiting to emerge, if only its authors will give it the heart needed to unlock it.