Before the critical smash hit musical Next to Normal reached the Broadway stage, its composer Tom Kitt wrote a far less successful, but no less rocking musical based on the Nick Hornby novel, High Fidelity. Perhaps best known for its 2000 movie adaptation starring John Cusack and Jack Black, the plot centres around a thirty-something record storeowner Rob, whose girlfriend Laura has just left him and whose business and life are far from successful.
Rob spends his days berating his customers for their poor taste in music and debating ‘Desert Island Discs’ style top-five lists with his two employees, the passionately opinionated Barry and dweeby music enthusiast Dick. In constructing a list of his top-five most memorable breakups, Rob (Russell Leonard) asserts that Laura “might squeeze into the top ten”, but she doesn’t rate as highly as some other ex-girlfriends. If Rob were a real person, Leonard’s performance would be spot on, full of sullen moodiness and frustrating under achievement. But on stage, especially in musical theatre, this sort of presentation is about three gears slower than required, and in fact well behind the performances going on around him.
This lack of oomph from the central character hobbles this production right out of the gate. Then disappointment turns to frustration as it becomes apparent, that regardless of having a certain amount of charisma, that makes his characterisation of Rob feel quite right, Leonard doesn’t have the vocal ability to be playing the central role of a musical. If this were a non-musical staging of High Fidelity, Leonard’s charm and good looks would carry him through, but they aren’t enough to drown out the atonal singing.
Thankfully, the supporting cast are all singers of excellent skill, and despite having to tune against a discordant leading man, they pull off some lovely musical moments. Such as when Rob asks the shy Dick to break difficult news to Barry, the resultant “It’s No Problem” pours out gloriously in Liam O’Byrne’s vocals. Likewise, when Rob’s plainspoken friend Liz drops by the store to deliver him some tough love via an Aretha Franklin inspired number, we’re regaled by a sassy belt from Lisa Woodbrook and some smooth harmonies from the quintet of Rob’s ex-girlfriends.
The script by experienced Broadway playwright David Lindsay Abaire is sharply crafted and frequently very funny. When Liz unsubtly tells Rob that Laura has moved on quite quickly by saying, “I don’t think much of this Ian guy”, it kicks off an obsession in Rob that proves Laura is in fact “Number Five With a Bullet” – as she sexily sings. Simone Van Vugt as Laura, gives a beautifully nuanced performance, saucy and sultry as she demands to be put on the list; sweet and funny as tries to move on with her new beau, the sickeningly ‘new age’ Ian. As Ian, Jason Bentley superbly delivers some of Amanda Green’s most witty lyrics, such as believing that in a past life Laura was Helen Keller and he was “the water!”
Set design by Sarah Tulloch is particularly impactful upon entry to the Chapel Theatre, the main feature being a two-story wall of record bins that make up the interior of ‘Championship Vinyl’. But as the show progresses the design becomes slowly disappointing, actually offering no working shop displays for customers to browse music in. An upper level to the set helps provide two distinct locations when Laura and Rob’s post-coital regrets parallel, but the space underneath it that looks like listening booths is under-utilised, ultimately forcing the action too far downstage.
However, the space does convert well as a bar where Rob watches the angsty singer Marie LaSalle perform a song that he connects with, “Ready To Settle”. The honeyed tones of Anisha Sanaratne make this cameo role one you wish was around for longer.
The realisation that Rob’s character has the bulk of the singing to do is a sinking feeling that comes towards the end of the first act, and is particularly brought to bear during a screechy duet between Leonard and James Robertson, as a vision of Bruce Springsteen that teaches Rob to find closure with his ex-girlfriends and move on with his life. Leonard, one of The King’s Men from King Kong and a trained dancer, shares choreography credits with director David Ward, and when it comes to numbers featuring Rob’s ex-girlfriends the movement works well. Routines featuring the entire cast however, feel overly detailed and out of character for the leads. This lack of subtlety is apparent in much of Ward’s direction and he doesn’t control some distracting undergraduate behaviour from the male ensemble.
Kitt and Green’s energising score adroitly references the many musical heroes of ‘Championship Vinyl’: such as Guns and Roses, Beastie Boys and Snoop Dog; and the musical ‘villains’, Coldplay and The Beatles. Rob even goes ‘country’ when he sleeps with someone who slept with Lyle Lovett! Musical Director Frankie Ross and her first-rate 10-piece band expertly handle these diverse musical styles; finishing on a high as Barry (Scott Mackenzie) rocks the house with a Percy Sledge inspired finale number “Turn the World Off (And Turn You On)”.
The Broadway production of High Fidelity was a complete flop, copping a slap from the New York Times’ Ben Brantley as one of the "all-time most forgettable musicals" and closing after eighteen previews and just fourteen performances. That makes this production from Pursued By Bear both a pleasing and perplexing choice. For those of us who enjoy seeing musical rarities, this is an exciting opportunity to perhaps uncover an unappreciated gem, and for a show to find a new and more admiring audience. But it also runs the risk of simply demonstrating why it was panned in the first place, and with a central performance as lethargic and cacophonous as this one is; the flames of curiosity have certainly been doused.