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 thirtysomething 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 closeup. 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, Lindsay-Abaire 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.