In our inner iPod runs the soundtrack to our lives. Sweet bliss? There’s the glory of soul. Have a revenge fantasy? Try gangsta rap. Self-indulgent depression? That’s what folk music is for. Male mid-life angst? Call the Boss. Narrative flow, character development and musical catharsis? How about the Broadway musical — at least one like the Rialto-bound “High Fidelity,” which marries a pop cultural sensibility with showbiz know-how.
Based on the popular Nick Hornby novel, the show tells the story of what makes one particular relationship fail, while making another one come together: Broadway and pop. And while it hasn’t yet made a seamless amalgam of the two, it comes closer than most — less “The Wedding Singer” and more “Hairspray,” but without the camp (and just a touch of drag). Even with all its out-of-town try-out flaws, “High Fidelity” is a musical that celebrates the power of pop culture with wit, verve and a killer beat.
It helps that the show is set in the world of a New York record store (transposed from London in the novel and Chicago in the 2000 Stephen Frears film starring John Cusack) called Championship Vinyl, one of the last outposts for ardent musical rebels, outcasts and loners where one can still get the blues, find soul, and rock on with like-minded passionistas.
The narrative at first is slight: the break-up of a romantic relationship, in this case between easy-going, Top Five List-making, unambitious record store owner Rob (Will Chase) and Laura (Jenn Colella), his smart and stylish lawyer girlfriend who wants something more in a relationship than compilation tapes.
But is this more than a rocking “They’re Playing Our Song II”? Though breaking up is hard to do, that’s not only what the story is about. It’s really about growing up while still honoring one’s self-defining music.
Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole,” “Kimberly Akimbo”) ably adapts Hornby’s 1996 book and the film to the stage, maintaining the author’s humor and loopy specificity with high fidelity of his own while reconfiguring it to the demands of a musical. The scene with Rob recounting his Top Five break-ups (and revisiting these women later in the story) is nicely compressed into a single song and a follow-up snippet in the second act. Lindsay-Abaire fleshes out the character of Ian (Jeb Brown), Rob’s new-age rival for Laura, while simplifying Rob’s romantic fling with folk performer Marie (Emily Swallow).
But in the stage version, Rob’s self-aware, self-obsessed unhappiness is simply centered on the loss of Laura and not with his unhappiness in his job and his life in general. Although it’s a tighter focus, it diminishes the thirtysomething hero’s angst, demanding that the audience be thoroughly captivated with the hero’s now-narrow plight.
Chase works hard in the role and is likable even when he’s being just another jerk with a Peter Pan complex. (In the book, film and musical, the character is rendered appealing and sympathetic because he shares his innermost thoughts and feelings with the reader/camera/aud.) But so far Chase lacks that idiosyncratic charm and passion that can make a “refreshingly average” guy something more special and less generic.
Colella’s character fares better but is still a bit underwritten. Nonetheless, it allows her to show off her range from a sweetly sung I’m-breaking-up-alone ballad to a fierce rock number of her own with “No. 5 With a Bullet,” a distaff version of Rob’s “Desert Island Top 5 Break-ups.”
Jay Klaitz does well as the record snob Barry (played memorably in the film by Jack Black) but here his character — though still clever and amusing — is minus his acerbic wild edge. (He even gets a girlfriend in the end, which would be cool if he were dangerous enough to attract such a babe.) Christian Anderson is an utter charmer as the shy, mild-mannered Dick.
For the musical, the character of Liz becomes Rob’s friend and ally (rather than Laura’s galpal). Rachel Stern (a new replacement) gives great comic tough-love counsel with the killer first-act number “She Goes.” Swallow as the famous folkie brings smiles to the wry “Ready to Settle.” Brown is delightfully blissed as Ian, who handled Kurt Cobain’s Intervention, we are told once too often. John Patrick Walker gets all the right moves down as Bruce Springsteen in Rob’s show-stopper fantasy scene, “Goodbye and Good Luck.”
Nailing the music in all its varied forms is Tom Kitts’ tuneful score (and rock-savvy orchestrations with Alex Lacamoire for the 10-piece pit band). Also impressive are the sharp, funny and telling lyrics by Amanda Green (who has inherited her father Adolph’s talented genes). Helmer Walter Bobbie shapes scenes with grace and speed.
Production values also are solid. Anna Louizos’ instantly transforming set nicely captures the similarities in both Rob’s work and home worlds. Theresa Squire’s character-specific costumes and Ken Billington’s lighting also lend credibility. Christopher Gattelli choreographs with a natural flair but one longs for more dancing — and more of an ensemble than the underpopulated 13-member cast.
Though the show has a great first act and a series of stellar numbers after intermission, halfway through the second act it loses momentum and confidence. The ultimate reunion of Rob and Laura is a quiet, sentimental and uncomplicated climax with a conventional clinch, something that the book, movie and — up to this point — musical managed to avoid. In this scene the traditional musical-theater template trumps inventive writing.
The show’s follow-up finale belongs to Barry who, in another departure by Lindsay-Abaire, performs with his new band at the record store. (In the book and film Barry’s band plays at a nightclub where Rob has found a new, presumably more satisfying job as a DJ.) The change is a good one but the scene prevents the lead characters from participating in the final number, keeping them on the sidelines (unlike previous production numbers, which wonderfully work in all the characters together).
With continued work from the creative team before it opens at Broadway’s Imperial Dec. 7, the show could end up as a satisfying product for auds — especially younger ones (there were a lot of backpacks among the suits in the Boston crowd) who want to see the music of their lives made special onstage, too. With attention “High Fidelity” at least it could make the season’s Top Five.