I’m not kidding. High Fidelity, which started out as a novel by Nick Hornby, which was then turned into a movie starring John Cusack, has been turned into a stage musical. Actually, it was turned into a musical a few years ago, but you are forgiven if it flew beneath the range of your theatrical radar, since the Broadway production closed after a mere 14 performances. Notwithstanding that unfortunate bit of history, the show has come to Chicago. A relatively new group, Chicago’s Route 66 Theatre Company, is opening it next week. Last night, I attended a preview performance.
Let’s start with the above photo. If that doorway looks familiar (particularly those Roman columns on either side), it’s because High Fidelity has rented out a space on the third floor of the Piper’s Alley complex next door to Second City. Yes, this is the space once known as Vinnie Black’s Coliseum, which housed the reception for Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding for 16 years until it closed last month. And that’s precisely why I was in attendance last night. As a former TnT cast member, I was offered free tickets to the preview, which I attended along with friends Nancy and Wilma.
I must state up-front that I had substantial misgivings about this show going in. Its abbreviated Broadway run was only a small part of those feelings. After all, many fine shows have done poorly on Broadway – or never played there at all. Still, closing after 14 performances isn’t exactly a merit badge. The larger portion of my misgivings stemmed from my suspicion that this story might not translate well into a musical theater format. While I haven’t read the novel, I saw the film and liked it a lot. The film contained a great many witty, observant details and I seriously questioned how well they would translate into the decidedly less subtle environment of a stage musical.
So what do I have to say about the production? Well, hmm… I’m going to split this into two sections – the Good Stuff and the Bad Stuff. Let’s start with the Good Stuff. By the way, I’m not going to bother describing the plot. I figure that if you’ve read the book or seen the film, you know the plot. If you haven’t done either of those things, you’ll enjoy seeing it unfold far more if you go to see it than if I try to lay it out for you. But if you want to know more about the show, you can go here, to the show’s website.
First, and maybe most importantly, High Fidelity works as a stage musical far better than I thought it might. Yes, a lot of those little observant details have been lost, but what we’re given instead is something more, well, theatrical. We’re given a collection of vividly drawn characters with diverse emotions and entertaining ways of displaying them. And, I’m happy to report, we’re given a show that is reasonably faithful to the plot and characters from the film.
The cast is generally very strong. Stef Tovar, in the lead role of Rob, hits just the right note and gives me a Rob I like and recognize. It speaks well of his performance that he never makes me miss, or even think about, John Cusack, who was so perfect as Rob in the film.
Dana Tretta deserves to be singled out as well. She plays Liz, friend and self-appointed conscience to Rob. Tretta is a tiny actress with a big stage presence. There is a memorable sequence in the show during which she carries around a blue medicine ball that seems larger than she is, and it comes off to great comic effect. I won’t even try to offer a context for that, but I promise you’ll be exceedingly amused by it.
Jonathan Wagner plays Barry, a role that introduced a lot of moviegoers to Jack Black. It must be said that a great deal of Wagner’s work here, particularly his timing, is strongly reminiscent of Black’s performance, but I don’t mean that as a criticism. No, I think that’s exactly the way to go here – if you can pull it off, and Wagner can. There’s no getting around Black’s indelible persona, and it’s absolutely right for the way the role of Barry is written. So high marks to Mr. Wagner for making me smile. A lot.
We move on now to the Bad Stuff. There’s only one specific Bad Thing I want to mention about the performances. There is one member of the cast whose performance was clearly below the bar set by the rest of the production. For the sake of discretion, I won’t single out the individual by name, role, or even gender, but all three of us in my party agreed that they were clearly the weak link. Their look was fine – right for the character. Their acting was fine. But their singing – not so fine. In a word, weak. I’m hoping that this person was perhaps not feeling well last night, or saving their voice for opening night. But all I have to go on is what I saw last night, and it was a shame to see such a weak link in an otherwise strong chain.
I’ve saved my biggest complaints for last. We were seated at a table on the far side of the room, and the sightlines were dreadful. Some of this was inevitable given the set design, but a lot of it was obviously correctable. I would speculate that the director never watched a rehearsal from our vantage point. Like many directors, he probably sat near stage center every day, from where I’m sure the show looks fabulous. A lot of key moments and sequences of visual/physical humor went completely unseen by us. We could only sit cluelessly while folks in the center section laughed uproariously. Seats like ours should either by eliminated entirely or at least marked as obstructed view seats.
The other BIG problem was the sound. I realize that the show is still in previews and that part of the purpose of previews is to work out the technical bugs, but once again, I can only go by what I heard (or didn’t hear) last night. Microphone levels were wildly inconsistent, and often seemed to not be turned on at all. We missed a lot of dialogue and a great many song lyrics. Once again, I think the sound was optimized for the center section, since they frequently reacted to lyrics none of us found intelligible. As a theatergoer, I don’t want to hear excuses. Yes, I’m aware that this show poses technical challenges that TnT never had to deal with, and that it’s a tall order for a new group to come into a strange, empty space and turn it into a theater. All I can say is this: They need to keep working on those problems, because as it stands, the audience at the sides is being neglected and short-changed. This show needs to build up some word-of-mouth publicity, and these technical issues need to be resolved if that word-of-mouth is going to consist of kind words.
So on the balance, there’s a lot of good stuff going on in this production. A whole bunch of multi-talented people have been gathered together for our enjoyment. You’ll laugh a lot and you’ll smile a lot. You might even tap your feet or clap your hands in rhythm with the music. Act I is a little uninspiring, but Act II gathers a lot of steam. If you go to see it, understand what it is and what it isn’t. By that I mean that it isn’t some harrowing epic like Miss Saigon or Les Miserables. You won’t walk out the door weeping for Doomed Lovers or pondering Cruel Fate, but you should walk out with a smile on your face. It’s an affable, amusing little musical that belongs in a more intimate space like this one at Piper’s Alley. Maybe they should never have put it into a big Broadway theater in the first place, but as a little show with a tight rocking combo onstage, it could run for a long time. Though if you decide to see it, I recommend that you absolutely insist upon being seated at a table in the center section, unless I hear that these staging and sound issues have been addressed.
Edit — Check out the comments section of this post for some important additional info from a Hi Fi cast member!