Musical Theatre Guild’s awesome one-night-only “concert staged reading” of the 2006 Broadway flop High Fidelity has confirmed what Hunger Artists’ West Coast Premiere first suggested in July. I am madly in love with HiFi, and if the cheers which greeted last night’s reading are any indication, I am not the only one who feels this way.

In retrospect, a musical about the owner of “The Last Real Record Store On Earth” may well have been TGFB (Too Grungy For Broadway) and ought perhaps to have opted for an off (or off-off) Broadway run. With music as eminently hummable as Tom (Next To Normal) Kitt’s, lyrics as clever as those written by Amanda Green (daughter of fabled lyricist Adolph), and a book as winning as David (Rabbit Hole) Lindsay-Abaire’s (based on Nick Hornby’s popular novel), High Fidelity deserved a far, far better fate than a mere month on Broadway, and there ought to have been dozens of regional productions over the past five years, rather than a mere handful before Hunger Artists’ and MTG’s.

Set at Championship Vinyl, the used record shop where our antihero Rob Gordon (Will Collyer) and his ragtag band of friends and customers hang out from dawn to dusk, HiFi opens with the introduction of the aforementioned Rob, a 30ish dude whose life consists of “cable and a girlfriend who is pissed off (but she’s hot), records that it’s taken me a lifetime to amass,” and Championship Vinyl. Assisting Rob in his day-to-day labors are Barry and Dick (“They came as temps. But then they started showing up here every day! It’s been four years. They just won’t leave.”) As for the threesome’s lives afterhours, Rob’s rent check has just bounced, Barry (Louis Pardo) still lives at home, and Dick (Zachary Ford) stays up all night watching Mary Tyler Moore. Not unexpectedly, their love lives aren’t all that much better. (Rob’s girl holds out, Barry’s inflates, and Dick thinks he had sex once but he’s not sure.)

 All this we find out in “The Last Real Record Store,” an opening number so exciting and imaginative that most musicals could only wish they had one half this good. With thrilling melody, rhythm, and key changes coming one after another, Kitt and Green’s humdinger of a song gives us ten of the most exhilarating minutes ever to open a musical, fills us in on exactly what life inside Championship is like, and promises one heck of an entertaining ride to come.

Rob soon informs us (in one of his many heart-to-hearts with the audience) that a) his girlfriend Laura (Robin De Lano) has broken up with him and that b) if he were to make up a list of his Top Five Breakups, she wouldn’t even make the Top Ten. (Of course we know he’s lying, since it’s clear from the get-go that he and Laura are MFEO.) In any case, regardless of the veracity of his claim, it serves as a pretext for a Musical Number #2, one that nearly matches the first in sheer high-spiritedness, as Rob enumerates his “Desert Island Top 5 Break-Ups,” backed by a quintet of exes (Nicci Claspell, Tonilyn Hornung, Destiny Lofton, Rena Strober, and Stephanie Wall) who can sing and move as good as they look—which is pretty darned good indeed. (We’ll see more of this “Greek Girl Chorus” as the show progresses, and ingeniously so.)

Rob’s story arc, as conceived of by Hornby in his novel and Lindsay-Abaire in his ingenious musical stage adaptation, is more a journey towards adulthood and adult commitments than a simple boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back cliché—and is all the richer for not taking the easy romcom route (though we do indeed follow Rob’s efforts to win Laura back as well as his two coworkers’ attempts at forging lives for themselves outside the shop). Supporting characters include Rob’s ballsy best friend Liz (Kim Huber), his new-agey upstairs neighbor Ian (William Martinez), who has a thing for Laura, Middle-Aged Guy (Roger Befeler), TMPMITW aka The Most Pathetic Man In The World (Trey Ellett), Mohawk Guy (Erik McEwen), Futon Guy (Ciarán McCarthy), a sweet young thing named Anna (Penelope Yates), and torch singer Marie LaSalle (Michelle Duffy), on court order not to reveal her past relationship with a certain Lyle Lovett.

In addition to their opening pair of showstoppers, Kitt and Green have written a number of terrific follow-up songs, including the joyously rocking “Nine Percent Chance” (these are the odds Laura gives Rob of coming back to him), “I Slept With Someone (Who Slept With Lyle Lovett), which has Rob nearly jumping for joy to be “sleeping with a rock star. Well, a rock star once removed…”), the power-ballady “Cryin’ In The Rain,” and the soft-rocking “Turn The World Off (And Turn You On).” “Conflict Resolution” crosses over to Heavy Metal territory, and therefore is one I usually skip over on the CD, but it adds up to a good deal more fun on stage than on disk.

As terrific as High Fidelity is on paper, it surely doesn’t hurt to have the gifted Richard Israel helming a live production, the Scenie-winning Director Of The Year three years running making the most of a setup which has cast members seated upstage observing the action whenever they’re not part of it. Working together with tiptop choreographer Angel Creeks, Israel and company make you forget you’re watching actors with book in hand. In fact, this stripped-down rendition proves just how great HiFi is without the overproduction that apparently contributed in its Broadway demise.

Boy-next-door Collyer couldn’t be better as Rob, bringing to the role the legit acting chops he displays in straight plays as well as some terrific musical theater pipes, and making Rob the kind of guy whose side you take even when he’s acting his most asshole-ish. (Note: High Fidelity’s R-rated lexicon may rankle the more linguistically prudish.)

DeLano combines beauty and smarts as Laura, and like Collyer is as gifted an actor as she is a singer. Ford and Pardo, longtime StageSceneLA favorites, make auspicious MTG debuts as Rob’s geeky temps-turned-regulars, filling out their roles with delicious quirks, and exhibiting vocal prowess in the process. Huber plays against type, sensationally, as Rob’s ballsy bestie, and displays a Broadway belt as thrilling as her Beauty And The Beast soprano. Martinez has never been funnier or more endearing as he is as the deliciously full-of-himself Ian. Claspell, Hornung, Lofton, Strober, and Wall create five entirely different exes, and harmonize to perfection. Duffy, on a night off from her straight play Colony gig, proves herself once again a vocal star par excellence. Ellett, McEwen, and Yates provide bangup support, and McCarthy, the breakout star of this summer’s The Wedding Singer, gets to be none other than Bruce Springsteen and sing the best Springsteen song The Boss never wrote.

Musical director David Lamoureux on drums leads the sensational onstage band. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg and AJS Costumes have selected just right fashions for the large cast. Art Brickman is production stage manager, Christopher Rosko and Jessica Standifer assistant stage managers.

Now that Hunger Artists and MTG have proven without a doubt just what a smash High Fidelity could have, should have, would have been under different circumstances, it’s time for an L.A. theater to step up to the plate and give us the fully staged production HiFi deserves. There aren’t many shows whose every single musical number gets not just applause but out-and-out cheers. High Fidelity is one of them, and those in last night’s audience can count themselves lucky indeed to have been given the chance to cheer.

–Steven Stanley
September 19, 2011

The Alex Theatre, Glendale
Photos: Alan Weston

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