So, as part of my birthday theater binge, I saw High Fidelity on Saturday night. It needs work. Lots of work. Put it this way: it was better than Lestat, but not as good as The Wedding Singer. In fact, it makes the latter look quite good by comparison. It's great that we're finally getting shows with a more modern sound, even if that sound is ten to fifteen years out of date. But High Fidelity is going to need some serious reshaping if it's going to have a chance at the Imperial.
The set is hideous, the jokes are awkward, and the staging is dreary and unimaginative. Playwright David Lindsay Abaire seems to be having quite a hard time breathing life into what should have been a terrific and natural property for a musical. The songs are engaging but lifelessly staged: too much stand-and-sing and not enough purposeful movement. Numbers that on paper should stop the show sit limply and go nowhere.
But the main culprit is Walter Bobbie's direction, which is flat and lifeless. He seems incapable of taking scenes that are pregnant with comedic possibility and actually making them funny. It's looking as though Bobbie shot his entire wad with Chicago. He's done nothing of note since then, and it's entirely possible that the phenomenal success of the Chicago was in spite of Bobbie rather than because of him.
Will Chase makes for a sympathetic but often bland Rob. Jenn Colella as Laura was mild but acceptable. Jay Klaitz as Barry was a pale imitation of Jack Black, an admittedly thankless job. Christian Anderson as Dick (and, yes, they do make the obvious joke out of his name) created the only distinctive characterization of the evening. The supporting players engage in lots of mugging and upstaging.
(Oh, and note to Abaire and Bobbie: cut the character "Johnny the Drunk" entirely. It's just not funny. Ever. Not even remotely. In fact, given our postmodern, 12-step sensibility, it's downright offensive.)
But, again, I blame Bobbie for any shortcomings in the acting. For instance, Katy Mixon as Liz was cartoonish and unintelligible in what should be a kick-ass number, "She Goes." Mixon went to Carnegie Mellon, so presumably she's got the chops.
I must confess that Act 2 got a little better. The big love song "Wonderful Love," despite the bland title, was quite effective. Rob's emotional intensity and Laura's ambivalence were palpable and affecting. It was the only time I stopped thinking about the fact that I was watching a show that wasn't quite working and got absorbed into the drama of the moment. The rest of the show needs this honesty and immediacy.
So the raw material is there: the songs are good -- quite good, in fact -- the performers are more than adequate, but the director and librettist are letting everyone else down. Abaire is a capable playwright, but untried thus far on musical comedy. The script may need a script doctor to help Abaire punch up the humor quotient.
And the producers need to seriously consider replacing Walter Bobbie, or bringing in someone to wrench some comedy and drama out of the songs and the scenes. Something tells me this isn't going to happen under the guidance of the man who gave us Footloose.