Phoenix Players. ANU Arts Centre. 14 Feb 2015
Having read the original Nick Hornby novel many moons ago and being a massive fan of the Americanised 2000 film starring John Cusack, I must say I was curious to see what form the musical version of ‘High Fidelity’ would morph into.
Developed in the USA by David Lindsay-Abaire, Amanda Green and Tom Kitt in the early 2000s, the musical incorporates elements of both the book and the film, but has taken creative licence with the story assumingly for ease of adaptation to the stage.
It’s the same basic storyline: Rob (Zach Raffan), a surly record storeowner, has just broken up with his girlfriend Laura (Josie Dunham). This jolt propels him into revisiting his top five past relationships to see where his love life went so terribly wrong.
But having these preconceptions of the book and film proved something of a distraction and initially made it difficult to accept this reimagining of the cult classic that seems to be flipping the bird to everything the other two stand for.
Walking into the ANU Arts Centre theatre, the set looked familiar enough – a gritty nineties retro aesthetic with music as the centrepiece. From the outset the script seemed much like I remembered it too, and the soundtrack effect of the kicking live band playing backstage was a great touch. Then came the songs.
While incorporating a lot of the dialogue and musical references from the book and film, the songs are actually original creations spanning a broad range of genres. But it’s incredibly jarring when a story you associate so strongly with being cynical and ultra hip suddenly mutates into Glee right in front of your eyes.
To be honest, most of the songs did in fact work quite well; the lyrics and accompanying choreography were funny and compatible with the intended essence of each scene. Furthermore, the immense collective talents and enthusiasm of the cast enabled them to pull off some of the more sentimental numbers (that the main characters ironically show such disdain for) without too much cringe factor.
One thing that seems almost impossible in a musical is to portray a character without turning them into a schmaltzy caricature. Musicals gloss over the enjoyable and carefully crafted nuances of an individual, leaving only shallow impressions of what they actually are. Again, an accomplished ensemble minimised this factor and injected enough depth to draw you in.
Raffan was well cast as the complex yet affable Rob, fully displaying the presence needed for the role that ultimately glues the show together as well as some beautiful chemistry with Dunham - though vocally he was not the strongest out of the primary characters. Dunham, as the conflicted Laura, had the most demanding role and she really delivered the goods with her powerful, artisan crafted voice and a complete abandon of inhibitions that took her performance to a whole other level.
Max Gambale in the role of the cantankerous Barry was every bit the bull in a china shop, while also showcasing the impressive extent of his singing capabilities in the stirring ‘Turn The World Off’. Likewise, Will Huang as the supposedly timid Dick blew the roof off with his unexpected vocal range and his kick arse comedic abilities – particularly during ‘Conflict Resolution’.
Amy Dunham was a stand out as mutual friend Liz, with a slightly sultrier take on the character with a brilliantly executed ‘She Goes’. David Cannell almost led me to believe that Nathan Lane had somehow won the part of Ian, with uncanny similarities both physical and in camp mannerisms. His performance was hysterical and his ‘Ian’s Here’ duet with Dunham was an absolute scream.
In the musical version of ‘High Fidelity’ there is a much stronger focus on the characters of Rob and Laura, with his ex-girlfriends’ roles (Nina Wood, Rachel Thornton, Laura Howieson, Silvana Moro and Ashleigh Bennett) so condensed that they play no meaningful part in the story – but nevertheless make great back up dancers/members of the chorus.
Rob and Dick’s respective interests, Marie Lasalle (Miriam Miley-Read) and Anna (Emily Ridge) have also been given a radical overhaul in both character and storyline, but fit in rather nicely to the bigger picture overall with solid performances.
Though ‘High Fidelity’ the musical is a departure from what most people would know and love about the book or film, it is still very much a good play in its own right. My advice would be to go to see it with an open mind and accept it on its own terms – once you do this, it becomes a really endearing and enjoyable experience. Who knows, it may even make your top five.
When: 6 to 21 Feb
Where: ANU Arts Centre - Canberra