Thursday, October 05, 2006

Is “High Fidelity” Ready for Broadway? They Pass Their “Vinyl Exam” in Boston with Flying Colors!

Tomorrow morning’s papers will offer reviews of the Broadway-bound musical “High Fidelity,” since tonight’s performance is the official Press Night at Boston’s Colonial Theater. I offer you my overall impressions based on last evening’s performance that left me and the rest of the enthusiastic multi-generational audience standing and cheering to express our delight and approbation. I give you fair warning that this will not be a “critical review,” since I can find precious little to criticize about this delightful rendition of a thrice-told tale of a record shop owner who can’t manage to attracts customers or hang onto girlfriends.

The story of “High Fidelity” comes to Broadway following a path similar to the one that brought the current popular musical, “The Color Purple,” to New York. Each work started out as a novel, was adapted to the screen, and then was transformed into a musical. Following a rich tradition in theater history, the producers of “High Fidelity” decided to bring the show to Boston to work out the kinks and get it ready for an anticipated New York opening in November.

Before I talk about the substance of this musical, let me digress for a moment to talk about why I chose to see this show in the first place. Since I am not a big collector of vinyl records, the subject matter was not compelling to me. But some of the names associated with the production caught my eye. This past summer, I saw a production, mounted by the Harvard Radcliffe Summer Theater group, of the play, “Wonder of the World.” I found the writing brilliant, magical and captivating. I was not familiar with the playwright, David Lindsay-Abaire, but my Googling of him told me that he was a native of South Boston and that he had written the book for the new musical, “High Fidelity.” When I learned that the new play would preview in Boston, I made a note to watch for the announcement that tickets were going on sale. A few weeks ago, I was attending a play in Portsmouth, proudly watching my son, Ti, as he appeared in “Sharp Dressed Men.” During the intermission, I connected with some of the audience members who were old friends of mine from my days of doing theater on the Seacoast of New Hampshire. My friends said to me: “Have you been following the roles that Christian Anderson has been playing? He is in the cast of a new musical called, ‘High Fidelity.’ That clinched it for me; I knew that I had to find a way to see this show!

I have a very simple and subjective way of evaluating whether I have gotten my money’s worth out of an evening at the theater. If, during the course of watching a play, I experience chills running up my spine and tears running down my cheeks, then I know I have invested my time and money wisely at the theater! In the case of “High Fidelity,” the chills came when I heard the opening bars of the Overture. The music, beautifully written by Tom Kitt, and ably performed by a great pit orchestra, reached out and grabbed me from the strident opening bars dominated by blaring brass. The energy was electric from the beginning, and did not falter throughout two well-balanced acts. The tears came as a surprise. I allowed myself to be caught up in the wry, clever, insouciant, irreverent and sardonic tone of the piece – losers poking fun at themselves, at one another and at the world in general. And then, without much warning, the mood shifted dramatically and seismically with the introduction of the hauntingly beautiful ballad, “Your Wonderful Love,” sung as a duet between Rob and his once and future girlfriend, Laura. I found myself deeply touched and moved – by the development in the characters that the song signaled, by the lyrics, written by Amanda Green, and by the singing and delivery of Will Chase and Jenn Colella as the struggling and conflicted lovers.

David Lindsay-Abaire’s writing remains as sharp as I had originally found it to be in “Wonder of the World.” He is prolific in his output of scripts. His much-acclaimed “Rabbit Hole” will enjoy its New England premiere on November 3 at the Huntington Theater. In “High Fidelity,” a project he was initially hesitant about participating in, he wields the English language as both a tool and as a weapon. He sometimes uses his rapier-sharp wit as a surgical scalpel to cut to the heart of the matter and at other times, employs it as a light saber to cut away at hypocrisy and pretense. His words entertain, but as they entertain and draw laughter, they also illuminate, instruct and comment. Pun and double-entendre are among his favorite verbal weapons of choice.

A rare customer in the record shop approaches Dick, a hapless and nerdy clerk, asking about where she might find a certain kind of record:

“Do you have the Blues?

“Well, actually, it is sometimes called
‘Seasonal Affective Disorder.’”

When it dawns on Dick what she is really asking, he takes a beat and continues, “Oh, look over there by the jazz records.”

It is a simple, hilarious and brilliant moment.

The ensemble cast has no discernible weakness, and that is a rare statement for me to make. In almost any show, I can usually find an actor or two who has been obviously mis-cast. Not so with “High Fidelity.” Particularly worthy of note are the previously mentioned Will Chase and Jenn Colella. The chemistry and the tensions between them work beautifully, and I found myself caring about the future of their relationship. Would a 9% chance at success be enough? Will Chase is a major talent. As an actor, he seems very comfortable in his skin – playing a character who is clearly anything but comfortable in his own skin. Christian Anderson plays Dick with a wonderfully understated sense of irony and hopelessness. His painfully inarticulate “It’s No Problem At All” brings down the house. Throughout his career, Anderson has demonstrated great dramatic range. I have seen him portray anguish as Jesus of Nazareth in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” menace as the drug dealer in “Rent” and ineptitude as Dick in “High Fidelity.” Jay Klaitz, as the other store clerk, Barry, is an actor I last saw on stage in Cambridge at the A.R.T. in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” His character, Barry, finally emerges from his chrysalis of geekitude to soar as a moth drawn to the flame of rock stardom! The rest of the ensemble of ex-girlfriends, “wannabe” musicians and “get-a-lifers” present the most loveable assemblage of losers since the 1962 New York Mets.

The musical numbers in the show are as varied in style as the kinds of records in Rob’s store. There is a marvelous Bruce Springsteen send-up, featuring Will Chase and Jon Patrick Walker that is a highlight of the show, walking the fine line between tribute and camp! Rob and Laura (Hello, Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore!), sing a scathing duet about the rebound relationships they have fallen into after their break-up. In a “split screen” montage that pays homage to the show’s cinematic heritage, Rob sings, “I slept with someone who slept with Lyle Lovett!” Laura soliloquizes, “I slept with someone who handled Kurt Cobain’s intervention!” The audience can almost smell the sense of desperation oozing from the pores of each of the alienated lovers. It is a moment that is poignant, funny, pathetic and sublime. It is also brilliant theater.

As soon as it is available, I plan to add the original Broadway cast album to my own modest record collection!

“High Fidelity” continues at Boston’s Colonial Theater through October 22, and then decamps to New York. See it here in Boston or there in New York, but see it! I predict a long run on Broadway.

FYI – A small tongue-in-cheek disclaimer: As I spoke with cast members after the show, I discovered that Will Chase and I share common ancestors and are therefore, distantly related. I made my determination that he was a major talent hours before I discovered that we are distant cousins! No nepotism here at The White Rhino Report!



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

oh Al! There is no way that that line is better than the book/movie version:

"Do you have soul?"
"That depends."