There used to be room on Broadway for genial. Shows maybe not of blockbuster quality, but, taken on less demanding terms, enjoyable nonetheless.
"High Fidelity," which opened Thursday at the Imperial Theatre, belongs to that class of musical. The production, based on Nick Hornby's delightful novel and the John Cusack movie, is bright, breezy entertainment - not a life-changing experience but notable in several respects.
It has brought playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, author of "Rabbit Hole," "Fuddy Meers" and other fine plays, into the ranks of musical-theater librettists, not exactly a growth profession. Lindsay-Abaire has done a credible job condensing and dramatizing Hornby's tale for the stage. And director Walter Bobbie has kept the story percolating nicely.
It's the saga of a thirty-something slacker named Rob who has never quite grown up. The man runs a used record store in Brooklyn (the location has been transplanted from London of the novel and Chicago in the film).
Rob's life revolves around vinyl, so to speak. Yet his pop-music-obsessed existence now has been disrupted by the breakup of his relationship with Laura, a lawyer who recently has gone from Legal Aid to corporate law. Their split preoccupies him and the musical and dredges up memories of a parade of other old girlfriends, too.
"High Fidelity" introduces the songwriting team of Tom Kitt and Amanda Green to the big time. Kitt's music is efficient and sometimes better than that, particularly in the rock-fueled comedy numbers. Maybe that's because Green's lyrics are fresh and often funny, a reminder that she is the daughter of legendary Broadway lyricist Adolph Green. Taken together, Green's words and Kitt's melodies do something that every good musical should try to accomplish - define character.
"High Fidelity" showcases an ingratiating cast of largely unknown performers. The show stars Will Chase and Jenn Colella as the pulled-apart lovers. Chase is a personable leading man, unaffected yet appealing as he acts out Rob's increasing frustration. Colella, who doesn't have nearly enough to do, possesses one of those clear, crisp Olivia Newton-John voices - and that's a compliment.
But then this is a "guy" musical with a strong male supporting cast. It features Jay Klailz (think a young Jason Alexander with a touch of Nathan Lane) as a belligerent, album-addicted, record-store clerk (the Jack Black character in the movie) and a beanpole named Christian Anderson as his shy, nerdy accomplice. They are comic delights.
The hero always has to have a best (female) friend. Here she's played by a robust Rachel Stern who wails her way through the reasons why Rob can't sustain a romantic relationship. It features the best of Christopher Gattelli's too-brief choreography.
The action moves effortlessly through designer Anna Loulzos' witty, fold-out set that cleverly morphs from Rob's cluttered record store to his album-filled apartment where these treasures are arranged not alphabetically, not chronologically but autobiographically - "the order in which they were purchased."
Much of Kitt's music's pays homage to the pop music of the last several decades. There is even an extended send-up of Bruce Springsteen with Jon Patrick Walker effectively playing the Boss in this fantasy sequence.
Those of us more familiar with M&M's than Eminem - my idea of pop music is Louis Armstrong's rendition of "Hello, Dolly!" undoubtedly missed some of the more current musical references. But no matter. Theatergoers so impaired will get the general idea of what is going on.
"High Fidelity" is the latest in a trend of stage adaptations of movie hits - reworkings that have included "Footloose," "Saturday Night Fever," "The Wedding Singer," "Dirty Dancing" (now in London and next year in Toronto) and "Legally Blonde," opening on Broadway in the spring.
Most have been negligible in their impact on musical theater. "High Fidelity" won't trailblaze either. But its charms are considerable and don't be surprised if you fall under its spell.
A story set in a record shop. It's such a natural for a musical, it could all but write itself. Not quite.
"High Fidelity," a modestly entertaining, rock-inflected romp, took the combined creative juice of David Lindsay Abaire (book), Tom Kitt (music) and Amanda Green (lyrics) to turn Nick Hornby's popular 1995 book and a follow-up film starring John Cusack into a Broadway show.
The musical, which opened last night at the Imperial Theatre, tracks the highs and lows of Rob (Will Chase), a mid-30s slacker who runs a record shop in Brooklyn and who is trying to reunite with his pretty lawyer girlfriend, Laura (Jenn Colella). Boy Loses Girl; Boy Wants to Get Her Back.
Small stories work in books and films because of nuances. On the stage, "High Fidelity," which sticks pretty close to its sources, comes off as rather slight. "Will Rob grow up and get Laura back?" is the question that drives the story, but Laura is so sketchily drawn, you may not care. And though Lindsay-Abaire strives to add depth to Laura by keeping a reference to her abortion in the story, it feels out of place in the otherwise fluffy show.
The score by Kitt and Green (daughter of legendary lyricist Adolph Green) is primarily pop-rock and Broadway, with sounds of soul, blues, folk and rap mixed in. The music doesn't lift the show off the stage, but there are some witty and tuneful standouts.
"I Slept With Someone" is one of them. It finds the leads reflecting the morning after. Rob has just bedded a sexy folk singer, Marie LaSalle (Emily Swallow), and Laura has had sex with the ponytailed New Age-y counselor Ian (Jeb Brown). Director Walter Bobbie ("Chicago") turns the duet into a fantastic fusion of song and setting.
Supporting characters get some of the top tunes. Rob's no-nonsense pal Liz (Rachel Stern) rocks out on "She Goes" - all the while ripping Rob a new one about the way he treats women. "Conflict Resolution" is the show's giddiest song. In it, Rob and his oddball clerks, Barry (Jay Klaitz, channeling Jack Black from the film) and Dick (Christian Anderson, who gives a weird, big-hearted performance), take revenge on Ian to the sounds of heavy metal, rock and gangsta rap. The moment, mined straight from the film, improves on the source.
As Rob, Chase, from the short-lived "Lennon," sings great and casts a high-wattage nice-guy glow - but that's not the same as star quality. As Laura, Colella has a pretty voice, but ultimately she doesn't have enough to do.
The No.1 Top Thing about "High Fidelity" is its set by Anna Louizos. It folds, flips and spins as it shifts lickity-split from record shop to Rob's apartment to downtown lounge and then back. One surprising moment uses sleight of hand (actually, yank of bedspread), and it's a tiny but thrilling reminder of how fun the theater can be.
Could Nick Hornby's laddish English novel "High Fidelity" - or even the Stephen Frears movie based on it - be successfully transmogrified into a Broadway musical?
The brave, if foolhardy, attempt opened last night at the Imperial Theatre, and the answer is no - though, unlike the train wreck that was last season's "The Wedding Singer," it has a few redeeming features.
A mix of the novel and the movie, the musical is set in Brooklyn - a long way, physically and culturally, from Hornby's London. David Lindsay-Abaire's book at least gets close to the heart of the novel with the character of its antihero, Rob, played by a languidly agreeable Will Chase.
Rob, a cool maestro of slacker non-commitment, is the owner of a hip/cult/nerd record store called Championship Vinyl, and is a devotee of Top Five lists, his fantasies of girlfriends past and even his hero, Bruce Springsteen.
Lindsay-Abaire's book hews more closely to the novel than the movie, even in its so-so happy ending.
Amanda Green's lyrics are even better. Daughter of legendary Broadway lyricist Adolph Green, this is one green apple that hasn't fallen far from the tree.
Her razzle-dazzle lyrics have a style and grace that zing in the ear - just listen to her name-dropping verbal variations on the themes of Lyle Lovett, Kurt Cobain and Kevin Bacon and those degrees of separation.
But if "High Fidelity" was to have had any real chance as a musical, it depended on the music that molds its rock-possessed hero. The movie soundtrack traded on '60s rock royalty, from Bob Dylan to the Kinks.
Here composer Tom Kltt emerges with a copycat, reverential, referential pastiche. It might have worked had it had the spectral vitality of Jonathan Larson's "Rent." But Kitt's music offers the fatal combination of sounding familiar yet unmemorable.
Director Walter Bobbie - much helped by Anna Louizos' wildly ingenious (if not particularly attractive) settings and Theresa Squire's spot-on costumes - has done as well as he could handling material that hits a Top Five list of what should never have been used for a musical.
The performers have to outface those often fierce audience memories surrounding any cult movie. How do you top John Cusack as Rob, or Jack Black In his boisterous breakout role as that magnificently obsessed music nut, the obstreperous Barry, given here onstage with careful abandon by Jay Klaitz?
Actually, the whole cast negotiates the show's pitfalls with amazing, if funereal, grace.
Chase (the best of the various Lennons in Broadway's ill-fated "Lennon") sings with the right rock fever and fervor, and, while no Cusack in the charm department, has more of the laid-back self-absorption and self-pity proper to the novel's Rob.
As Laura, Rob's latest breakup, the spunky Jenn Colella makes the most of her chances, as do Jon Patrick Walker as the hand-clapping fantasy-Springsteen, Christian Anderson as the ultimate record nerd Dick and Kirsten Wyatt as Anna, the meek kid with an unfortunate penchant for John Tesh.
But performances do not a musical make. For that, you need music.
A new musical is said to have opened last night on Broadway. I mean, I saw it. Or I think I did. It's called, uh, wait a minute, it'll come to me. Got it! "High Fidelity." And if I close my eyes and concentrate really hard, I just might be able to describe a show that erases itself from your memory even as you watch it.
The virtues of "The Wedding Singer" - oh, sorry, I mean "Urban Cowboy"; no, I mean "High Fidelity" – are almost entirely negative. The latest Broadway songfest to trade on fond associations generated by a popular movie (in this case Stephen Frears's 2000 film of the same title, adapted from Nick Hornby's 1995 novel), "High Fidelity" is not mean-spirited, sticky sweet, stress-inducing, excessively loud, cutesy or pushy.
The seeming credo of this production at the Imperial Theater, which has a book by David Lindsay-Abaire and songs by Tom Kitt and Amanda Green, can be found early in its lyrics: "Nothin's great, and nothin's new, but nothin' has its worth." This declaration is sung by the show's hero, the romantically bereft Rob, as he describes his uneventful life as the owner of a vinyl record store in Brooklyn. Rob is played by Will Chase, who, it must be said, is not obnoxious.
And that's a problem. Much of what has made Mr. Hornby's novel and Mr. Frears's film cult favorites is that its hero and his pals are obnoxious, and you like them not despite this trait but because of it. List-compiling pop-music snobs who wouldn't think of associating with anyone who listens to Phil Collins, Rob and his socially challenged sidekicks live by the belief that it's not what you are but what you like that defines you.
The immense charm of Mr. Hornby's book, set in London, comes from its ability to convey both the shameful pleasures of flightless Peter Pans behaving badly and the fears (of commitment, of growing up, of mortality) that fester within them. In successfully transplanting the story to Chicago, Mr. Frears's film (starring John Cusack) demonstrated that testosterone-linked fatuity and geekiness are not exclusively British afflictions. (The presence in the movie of a loud young man named Jack Black was enough to confirm this theory.)
Surely geeks grow in Brooklyn too. Yet in the musical version of "High Fidelity," directed by Walter Bobbie, these overgrown lads have shed both their sting and their pain. The characters have the same names and say many of the same things. In addition to Rob - who takes inventory of his romantic past while mourning the departure of his live-in girlfriend, Laura (Jenn Colella) - there are his customer-scaring employees and best friends, the meek Dick (Christian Anderson) and the brash Barry (Jay Klaitz, in the Jack Black role).
If you've been a die-hard patron of Broadway over the last decade, you have probably noticed that something weird happens to figures from books and movies when they enter the land of musicals. The rough edges and prickly quirks that made them distinctive soften into a uniform blandness.
This is what used to occur when Hollywood made films of Broadway musicals, replacing Ethel Merman with Betty Hutton or Mary Martin with Mitzi Gaynor. The sad inference to be drawn from this reversal is that Broadway producers feel that the average theatergoer's appetite for originality is well below that of film and television watchers.
Of course "High Fidelity" presents a special problem to those who would convert it into a musical. How could any composer, aiming for a mainstream audience, hope to come up with a score that would pass muster with its own cool-conscious, musically exacting characters? Mr. Kitt (who worked on "Urban Cowboy" and "Debbie Does Dallas") has responded by throwing a lot of watered-down pop and rock elements (heavy metal power chords, folkie acoustic guitar, R&B riffs and tinkly romantic piano) into a pot and hoping they congeal.
As a consequence the songs never acquire body or precision, even as satire. (Though there's a mildly funny hip-hop revenge fantasy, sequences in which Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen materialize in Rob's imagination feel like high-school follies routines.)
A similar what-the-heck quality pervades Ms. Green's obscenity-heavy lyrics, which skew toward rhymes that whimsical frat boys might come up with after a few pitchers of beer. (One printable example: "Now please don't take this as mean-hearted/But are you on crack or just retarded?")
And while Mr. Lindsay-Abaire, the talented author of "Rabbit Hole" and "Fuddy Meers," has incorporated most of the story line and many of the choicer details from the book, he inserts them almost randomly, as if desperately checking off a roster of what has to be included. The lists by which Rob tries to make sense of his life - Top 5 Break-Ups, Top 5 Things I Miss About Laura - are not so much integrated as simply included.
A figure who makes a hilarious cameo appearance in the book, the Most Pathetic Man in the World, is here fleshed out into a running sitcom character, and thus entirely loses his impact. And the first act curtain line, in which Rob announces that he loves Laura more than ever and is going to sleep with another woman, slips by almost unnoticed.
The show features some incidental dancing (choreographed by Christopher Gattelli). But the most compelling movement onstage is achieved by Anna Louizos's set, which seamlessly and wittily shifts among Rob's bedroom, record store and street and club scenes.
The performances aren't bad, but there is little in any of them to arrest the attention. Rachel Stern surprisingly produces a big soul voice on occasion, though it doesn't really match her role, the officious friend-to-all, Liz. Mr. Chase, who was the best of the many actors playing the title role in the ill-fated musical "Lennon," is affable and smooth but doesn't start to find anything resembling a character until the show is almost over.
Still, "High Fidelity" definitely deserves a place in my own catalog of Top 5 lists. That would be on the roster of All-Time Most Forgettable Musicals. Now if only I could remember the names of the others.
Note to all the people who didn't care enough to keep “The Wedding Singer” alive beyond the end of the year. In Broadway's unending quest for product that sells itself on the back of bigger markets, it has come up with another amiable musical knockoff with tracing-paper for brains.
"High Fidelity," based on the 2000 movie that was based on Nick Hornby's 1995 novel, is an oddly peppy version of the mopey charmer about a rock geek in love with his own broken heart. Despite a likable performance by Will Chase in the role made droll on film by John Cusack, the show tries so hard to be hip and clever that even the effort feels square.
Chase plays slacker Rob, proud owner of Championship Vinyl, beloved by his barely employed staff of happy singing misfits as "the only real record store on earth."
While the movie changed the London setting to Chicago, the musical takes place in "a remote neighborhood in Brooklyn." For reasons we fail to grasp, it appears that only white people live there.
David Lindsay-Abaire's book neatly draws us into the story, perceived both in present tense and flashbacks through Rob's sad-puppy eyes. For a while into the first act, we are engaged by this self-involved fellow who wallows in memories of girls who've dumped him.
He is, after all, the sort of obsessive who makes lists of life's various this-and-thats. When his current live-in love, Laura, moves out he deflects the pain by omitting her from his "Desert Island Top Five Breakups." Walter Bobbie, who directed "Chicago," lines up the seductive girl-women to suggest a wholesome wink at the murdering vamps in Cook County Jail. So far, so amusing.
Trouble arrives with Jenn Colella, a miscast Laura of such cold, hard edges that, no matter how well she sings, no chemistry drives the plot. We are meant to believe her as a do-good lawyer who turned corporate but maintains her high-spirited decency. If she's so smart, why would she leave without a place to go and be forced to shack up with a ridiculous new-age windbag – a role made irresistible on film by Tim Robbins and reduced here to a cartoon by Jeb Brown?
As in the '80s-era "Wedding Singer," a big part of the movie's appeal depends on the zeitgeist authenticity of the music. Instead of the artists who define this world's alt-music snobbery, we have an upbeat, conscientious pastiche of the periods by newcomer Tom Kitt. Rob's imaginary visit from Bruce Springsteen (the able Jon Patrick Walker) makes an unworthy plot and musical detour.
Often-witty lyrics by Amanda Green (daughter of Adolph) trip over such offbeat specificity as "You paved the way for romance/when you kept him out of your pants." Star-struck characters drop names - Lyle Lovett and Kurt Cobain - in lyrics that are funny the first time, annoying the fifth.
Christian Anderson makes a lovely maladroit store clerk, and Jay Klaitz actually competes with the memory of Jack Black's breakthrough role as the loud slob with big ambitions.
Christopher Gattelli's choreography sweetly takes its cue from the competing musical eras. He integrates manic two-footed jumps and air-guitar windmills into narrative and, in the rewinding fantasy of Rob's revenge on his romantic competition, mocks rap at the same time he celebrates it.
The set, by Anna Louizos, smoothly shifts from the obsessively chaotic store to Rob's LP-lined apartment with its grad-student furniture. Costumes, designed by Theresa Squire, have the aptly self-conscious, haphazard look of thrift-shop chic.
Given the unrelenting cheerfulness ofthe adaptation, recriminations about Laura's abortion feel far less apt. Mostly, this is a show that tries hard to appeal to the stunted adolescent boy in us all - presuming, alas, that we have one.
Some cover versions are just bad ideas. For every incisive reinterpretation like Sid Vicious' "My Way," there's an ill-considered embarrassment like Madonna's "American Pie" or Britney's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll." "High Fidelity" doesn't rival those affronts to popular music history, but it suffers from a similar kind of fundamental mismatch. The introspective story of a vinyl junkie whose pattern of being rejected by women reflects a failure to channel his passion for music into other areas of his life, Nick Hornby's funny and insightful 1995 novel was just never meant to be a Broadway musical.
There are some talented people involved here and a likable cast that makes the show by no means laborious to sit through. But it lacks charm, sincerity and heart. That absence can partly be traced to the music. As much as fashion, shopping or dating became the defining obsession of protagonists in a whole wave of disposable chick lit, in Hornby's far smarter male equivalent, floundering thirty-something Rob is his eclectic music collection.
This is a guy who bows his head in respect to trailblazers like the Beatles and the Kinks; soul gods like Marvin, Otis and Aretha; punk iconoclasts such as the Sex Pistols and Stiff Little Fingers; rockers like the Clash and the Pretenders; and cult outfits like Belle & Sebastian and Stereolab. Take all that away and substitute generic, imitative pop-rock songs and you have a show that doesn't compute. Not only is Rob asked to listen to music that probably leaves him cold, he's forced to sing it.
Hornby's books have proved elastic to adaptation. The fanatical Arsenal Football Club supporter of his autobiographical 1992 novel "Fever Pitch" became a baseball fan with a religious devotion to the Boston Red Sox in the 2005 movie. While its London specificity was almost as central to "High Fidelity" as its observations on guyness, the novel translated with integrity, wit and a good share of its idiosyncratic detail intact to a Chicago setting in Stephen Frears' film.
The savvy balance between adolescent narcissism and wry self-effacement in co-screenwriter John Cusack's performance as Rob certainly helped make the 2000 screen adaptation an understated charmer. But in addition, music as a vital popular language was embedded deep in the film's DNA. In David Lindsay-Abaire's book for the musical, by contrast, it's what the main character and his similarly stunted music-geek buddies are into, but it's not the soul of the show. In fact, the show has no soul.
Transplanted again, this time arbitrarily to Brooklyn in "the recent present," the material has also been stripped of its keen sense of place, though Anna Louizos' nifty sets and Ken Billington's vibrant rock concert-style lighting supply some visual texture.
Rob (Will Chase) runs Championship Vinyl, hailed in the peppy opening number as "The Last Real Record Store" on earth. While he claims in song that she doesn't even make his "Desert Island Top 5 Breakups," it's clear the recent exit of girlfriend Laura (Jenn Colella) from his life has wounded him, encouraging Rob to reflect on where he's going wrong with women.
That's about it in terms of plot: Guy loses girl, ponders his terminal singledom, learns lesson of committing to what's real instead of chasing the fantasy, gets girl back. There's not a lot of nuance, and Walter Bobbie's by-the-numbers direction doesn't exactly seek it out.
Hornby's story is largely about a state of mind and about acknowledging the limitations of that state as a step toward adulthood and stability. That clearly was enough to sustain the novel and film, given the microscopic emotional detail available on the page and in screen close-up. But it doesn't flesh out the broad strokes required to animate a musical. Too many of the songs merely repeat Rob's dilemma without advancing the story or providing fresh kinks.
Chase makes Rob an affable, easygoing guy with a sense of humor about his shortcomings. But in Lindsay-Abaire's script, neither Rob nor Laura is interesting enough for us to care much whether they get back together.
Laura, especially, is problematically underdeveloped, and Colella struggles to make her sympathetic. Her questionable choice of rebound guy -- tiresome hippie throwback Ian (Jeb Brown), an even sillier caricature than Tim Robbins was in the movie -- only makes her less appealing.
Structurally, not enough work has been done to make the central couple's journey toward reconciliation urgent or compelling, a problem compounded by the decision to keep them on the sidelines in "Turn the World Off (and Turn You On)," the closing number that caps a feeble second act.
Much like those behind "The Wedding Singer," which this show resembles in many ways, LindsayAbaire has attempted to compensate for the plot's lack of muscle by beefing up supporting characters in the underpopulated ensemble.
As the flaky Championship store clerks, Jay Klaitz's Barry offers a less exhilarating retake on Jack Black's antic anarchy from the film while Christian Anderson as Dick is endearingly nerdy, like a tender-hearted emo ballad brought to life. Rob's friend (originally Laura's in the book) Liz (Rachel Stern) gets a gutsy number in "She Goes," with R&B backup boys. There's also a spiritual guru role played by Bruce Springsteen (Jon Patrick Walker).
Borrowing riffs from all over the popular music map, Tom Kitt's tunes are energetic but unmemorable. With lyrics like "I slept with someone who handled Kurt Cobain's intervention/He taught me all these tantric moves/And he's really good at frenchin'," Amanda Green has a long way to go before living up to her artistic pedigree (she's Adolph Green's daughter). She does score occasional comic points, even if the strain of striving for coolness shows in both lyrics and profanity-strewn dialogue.
Should a traditional Broadway musical even try to be hip? That's one of the questions "High Fidelity" raises as it reaches for credibility by mocking easy targets like Celine Dion and John Tesh. This bland show is crippled by its failure to convincingly tap the pulse of pop culture or to mine the romantic heartache of its source material.