Chicago Theatre Review
Vinyl, Mixed Tapes and Love
High Fidelity – Refuge Theatre Project
Rob Gordon is a pleasant, but aimless young man in his mid-thirties, floating along through his everyday existence with very little drive or gumption. He’d much rather just observe life than actually participate in it. Rob loves taking stock of the people he’s known and the events he’s experienced by creating top 5 lists and sharing his obsession with others. He also owns a record store in Brooklyn that’s barely surviving. Along with his two buddies and co-workers, Barry and Dick, they are the last of a dying breed. The three friends live for classic rock music, especially on vinyl, and they know everything there is to know about it. Rob, especially, enjoys making mixed tapes, as well. However, when his girlfriend Laura leaves him, Rob starts to re-evaluate his love life through a series of comic flashbacks, finally realizing that it’s time to grow up and begin thinking of others, instead of just himself.
Based upon both the Nick Hornby novel and the John Cusack film, David Lindsay-Abaire (“Good People,” “Shrek the Musical”) adapted the story for the stage. The spirited pop/rock score by Tom Kitt (“If/Then,” “Next to Normal”) sports some unique and clever lyrics by Amanda Green (“Hands on a Hardbody,” “Bring It On: the Musical”). The story and characters are very similar in all three versions. The only exception, besides the musical’s toe-tapping original songs, is that while Hornsby’s novel has a London locale and the film is set in Chicago, the musical takes place in Brooklyn. Following a month-long Boston tryout in 2006, the show opened and sadly closed on Broadway within a month. However, this infectious, good-natured musical now has its own cult following, much like the film; and many colleges and regional theatres are producing their own popular, highly-regarded productions. This latest offering by the fledgling Refuge Theatre Project is no exception.
Now in its second season, this promising young company that strives to offer “musical theatre for real people” is continually growing and evolving. Their latest production, under the expert guidance of Chicago director and choreographer Christopher Pazdernik, offers a show that bursts with humor and high energy. His cast is composed of fourteen triple threats who not only impress with their vocal expertise but bring down the house with their sharp, precise, well-executed dance moves. In Michelle Manni’s intimate loft-apartment setting the audience can get up-close-and-personal with all the characters. This works especially well for the more nuanced personal scenes. Setting Rob’s bedroom at one end of the room and most of his record shop at the other (smartly surrounded by musical director John Cockerill’s talented five-piece band), the majority of the playing area is open and available to showcase Pazdernik’s impressive choreography, as well as his nicely staged group scenes.
The only complaint with this staging is that, with the theatergoers seated on either side, the dance numbers tend to drive away from the audience, as if we’re viewing the musical numbers from the wings. The smaller scenes that are played at either end work much better on this floor plan, but when the entire ensemble is strutting and crumping their hearts out, playing to the extreme left and right, it doesn’t feel as if they’re presenting their artistry for our benefit. Instead, the theatergoer feels like a bystander.
Max DeTogne not only exhibits the finely-honed vocal skills that we’ve come to expect from this terrific, young actor (who’s wowed audiences as Che in “Evita” and in the title role of “Jesus Christ Superstar”); he also effortlessly displays a range of subtle moods and emotional changes in his journey toward self-discovery. He charms with many songs, particularly the lovely, “Laura, Laura.” The beautiful Liz Chidester plays Laura with warmth and honesty, breaking our hearts as we watch her work through some difficult, life-changing decisions. So many challenges are thrown her way that we rejoice in the success of Laura’s final moments.
Nick Druzbanski is very funny as Barry, the role Jack Black made famous. The 11th hour performance of “Saturday Night Girl,” by Barry’s band, The Skids is worth the wait. Stephen Garrett plays Barry’s co-worker Dick as a lovable nerd who tugs at our heartstrings with his shyness. Garrett’s blossoming romance with Anna, played with sweet sincerity by Lizzie Schwarzrock, is one of the highlights of this production. As portrayed by Tony Carter, Ian is a pompous, smarmy, New Age guru who humorously oils his way into Laura’s life with ease.
The awesome and mega-talented Caitlin Jackson plays Liz, Laura and Rob’s outspoken friend, with larger-than-life enthusiasm. Together with Mr. DeTogne, the two tear up the stage with their duet, “She Goes.” Amy Stricker has some great moments as up-and-coming songstress Marie, belting out songs like “Ready to Settle” and “Terrible Things.” The entire ensemble is terrific and supportive, especially Noah Berman who really stands out as both TMPMITW and an hilarious fantasy image of Bruce Springsteen.
Finally they have a production that elevates this continually evolving young theatrical company to prominence and respect. Dedicated to producing contemporary musicals that are unfamiliar or new to Chicago audiences, this enthusiastic group has found a piece that both strikes a chord and is worthy of their considerable talent. This is a warm, worthwhile and funny love story about growing up and becoming a caring and responsible adult. It’s all set to the pulsating rhythms of 80’s rock music, while celebrating an obsession for vinyl recordings, mixed tapes, top 5 lists and the unrelenting human spirit.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 28-February 28 by Refuge Theatre Project at Refuge Records, 666 W. Hubbard Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available at www.refugetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com