OK, so I should say up front that “High Fidelity”—both the Nick Hornby novel and the Stephen Frears cult film—is too important in my life to judge its musical-theater adaptation with any degree of objectivity. My worship of this story, about record-shop owner Rob Gordon unpacking his lifetime of lost loves in order to salvage his current breakup, borders on religious zealotry.
I saw myself in it; I’ve been making esoteric Top 5 lists since I could count, not to mention I’m the kind of obsessive vinyl collector who would be one of Championship Vinyl’s top customers. “High Fidelity” is close enough to my heart that to tinker with its brilliance is to tinker with me.
So it was with much anticipation and trepidation that I sat down for Slow Burn Theatre’s production of the “High Fidelity” musical last weekend: hopeful that if any company in this region could do this show justice, it’s this one, and afraid that they’ll strike the wrong tone—or that I’ll discover that the source material is as bad as some critics pointed out during its blink-and-you-missed-it run on Broadway in 2006.
It’s with great relief that I approve of the final product. But before I judge the show on the merits that really matter, I must indulge in some cosmetic inconsistencies, which 99 percent of audiences wouldn’t notice but which continue to stick in my craw. Sean McLelland’s set design, while generally evoking the spirit of a single guy’s apartment and the retro ambience of the record shop, showcases album art for countless dollar-bin thrift-shop records, a far cry from the sort of specialized product that would appear on the walls of a store like Championship Vinyl. There is a poster on Rob’s wall for Blink-182, a band Rob would never be caught dead listening to—ditto to the Def Leppard shirt he wears in the beginning of the musical. No fan of Belle & Sebastian and Stereolab, whom Rob name-drops in the musical’s script, likes those other bands. Some more carefully curated décor would have done the trick.
From this point on, my superfan nerd hat has been removed, and my theater critic hat is back on: This is a pretty terrific production of a fun, if maddeningly boxy, show. Robert Johnston plays Rob, whose latest flame Laura (Nicole Piro) has just left him; credit his inability to fully commit to her, and other reasons that manifest as the show continues. What’s worse, for Rob, is that she’s begun to shack up with her neighbor, a New Age cliché named Ian (Noah Levine). Among the sounding boards for Rob’s romantic foibles: Dick (Bruno Vida) and Barry (Sebastian Lombardo), his respectively meek and acerbic “employees” at the record shop; Liz (Sandi M. Stock), he and Laura’s mutual friend; and Marie LaSalle (Kaitlyn O’Neill), a folksinger and fellow traveler in heartbreak.
Tom Kitt’s jaunty and eclectic music, beautifully arranged by Manny Schvartzman, is supplemented by lyrics from Amanda Green that pivot around key phrases from Hornby’s novel and twist them cleverly into rhymes. Rick Pena’s costumes are mostly spot-on, with his combination of unflattering geek-garb, punk-rock accouterments and slacker couture effectively capturing the look of the record shop’s denizens—not to mention a perfect Bruce Springsteen ensemble for actor Larry Buzzeo, who does a dead-on Boss impersonation late in the show.
Much of the source material of “High Fidelity” concerns Rob autopsying his dead relationships—the other women, besides Laura, on his Top 5 Desert Island Break-ups—and learning from their failures. But this is a small aspect of the musical. Its writers, including David Lindsay-Abaire and Green, focus more on the relationship between Laura and Ian. And in this context it works, not the least because we get to see more of Noah Levine’s hysterical interpretation of the patchouli-scented vegan. I didn’t even mind that Ian never becomes anything more than a caricature; Levine is having such a great time that it doesn’t matter.
In one of the strongest scenes in the production, Rob and Laura wake up at the beginning of Act 2 in different strangers’ bedrooms—Laura with Ian and Rob with Marie—and their subsequent duet “I Slept With Someone” points to a chasm of regret that doesn’t exist in the original material. Piro, whose performance seems almost out of joint in the beginning of the musical, shows us how good she is in this moment; over the course of the song, we watch her entire world view gradually fall from elation to something like shame and embarassment. When Rob and Laura are finished singing, both are in the same “bed,” in their minds if not their realities, adrift yet connected.
The scene is followed, soon after, by another highlight: a series of brisk and impeccably directed fantasy sequences, lifted very much from the movie version of “High Fidelity,” in which Rob imagines the different ways of dispatching Ian once the snarky spiritualist enters his shop. Rap music accompanies most of it, complete with obligatory bleeped words.
I was less taken with the decision—and this isn’t the fault of the production—to create flourishing love lives for Barry and Dick, which involves tempering the latter’s musical elitism by pairing him with an unrepentant Josh Tesh fan (Courtney Poston). At this point, the show feels so commercially compromised that it’s hard to believe it came from the same source as the earlier scenes. The necessity of its characters to find love at the end is an inevitable musical-comedy chestnut, though one that is less welcome in a work as idiosyncratic as this one.
As for Johnston, he’s terribly young to be playing Rob Gordon, and I just couldn’t accept his midlife tally of fractured relationships or even his recent one with Laura, played by the more age-appropriate Piro. But what can I say? The guy can clearly sing, dance and act, and he seems to have a genuine understanding of who Rob Gordon is. For evidence of that, watch as he illustrates the “Top 5 things he misses about Laura,” a list that quickly becomes 10 things, all of them heartfelt, spoken like a man who has been through more than Johnston. Now, if we could just get him a Guided by Voices shirt instead of that Def Leppard rag, we’d really be somewhere.
“High Fidelity” runs through June 29 at Slow Burn Theatre at West Boca Community High School, 12811 W. Glades Road, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $25-$40. Call 866/811-4111 or visit slowburntheatre.org.