Might some shows actually work better as jukebox musicals?
This heretical idea popped up while I was watching "High Fidelity," the sporadically worthwhile, strangely misguided musicalization of the beloved Nick Hornby novel and subsequent film. While I am extremely hesitant to advocate the displacement of yet another composer and lyricist from an increasingly hostile Broadway climate, director Walter Bobbie could fix the vast majority of what's wrong with this stillborn enterprise with the right songs, preferably ones chosen by the story's hipper-thanthou protagonist, Rob Gordon.
The appealingly rumpled Rob (Will Chase) may not have much going for him in terms of insight or maturity; to quote Mr. Hornby, he still clings to the idea that "what really matters is what you like, not what you are like." But when it comes to music, he and his fellow rock snobs definitely know what they like. In both the book and the film, the two maladroit employees at Rob's struggling record store, the meek Dick (Christian Anderson) and the marauding Barry (Jay Klaitz), practically come to blows over whether the Righteous Brothers or Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels recorded the definitive version of "Little Latin Lupe Lu."
Each day at Championship Vinyl brings another round of painstakingly assembled, vehemently debated Top 5 lists. You wouldn't trust these guys with your checkbook or your heart, as Rob's aggrieved girlfriend Laura (Jenn Colella) would be the first to admit. But you know your iPod would come back in better shape. And if you don't believe in their deep-rooted wisdom in all things pop, the writers have failed on a crucial level.
By that benchmark, the creators of the Broadway adaptation — and specifically composer Tom Kitt — have dropped the ball. His plodding, foursquare score throws eclecticism to the wind, working within a dismayingly narrow window of styles. Except for a nod to Neil Young here and a mention of Belle and Sebastian there, the references don't go much broader than those in the 1980s-obsessed "Wedding Singer."
Talking Heads, Guns 'N' Roses, Bruce Springsteen — this list has nothing to do with music geeks and everything to do with marketing demographics. And when the otherwise winning Mr. Chase punctuates his first song with a thunderous move on air guitar, any hopes of establishing hipster credibility are pretty much shot. Both the original novel and the film cited an impeccably off-kilter roster of hits, cult favorites, and left-field wonders. Might a similar assemblage have given shape to these guys' hermetic world and made the world outside Championship Vinyl — the real world, in other words, with its abundant but unquantifiable rewards — that much more foreign and intimidating?
The killer is that "High Fidelity" had a chance of being much better. It boasts an unusually promising bookwriter in David Lindsay-Abaire ("Rabbit Hole," "Fuddy Meers"), who has kept plenty from the film and deviated only when it made sense to deviate — i.e., when the paucity of time for exposition between songs required tightening. Anna Louizos's set features an array of enjoyable quick-change gags. And Mr. Chase and Ms. Colella, each of whom have stood out in bad musicals ("Lennon"and "Urban Cowboy,"respectively), have talent to burn and will eventually get material worthy of their abilities.
Lyricist Amanda Green's efforts, while spotty and at times a bit crass, show flashes of the brassy, cosmopolitan verve exemplified by her father, Broadway legend Adolph Green. A particularly strong effort is the desultory ballad "Ready to Settle":
You're just like me,
Alone and sad,
And in this light
You don't look so bad.
But not even their best efforts, plus some appropriately goofy dance moves (the air guitar notwithstanding) by the up-and-coming choreographer Christopher Gattelli, can transcend the squareness of the musical world inhabited by these self-appointed arbiters of taste. Barry's superiority toward the philistine customers who request Celine Dion and John Tesh records is a lot harder to justify in the context of toothless Broadway numbers like "She Goes" and "I Slept with Someone."
It doesn't help that much of the supporting cast has a hard time carving out their own space, particularly when held up to the two previous incarnations of the story. Mr. Klaitz offers almost nothing beyond what Jack Black provided, Rachel Stern goes for cheap laughs as Laura's disapproving friend, and Emily Swallow barely registers as a hip one-night stand. The only successful reimagining is Mr. Anderson's unsocialized but sweet Dick.
Mr. Lindsay-Abaire has clearly thought long and hard about how to make "High Fidelity" his own without straying too far from his source material. Takethe scene in which Rob enumerates the Top 5 things he misses about Laura. Mr. Lindsay-Abaire picks up where the movie left off and, for the first time, allows Rob a few extra picks, including this gem: "She smirks in her sleep.I don't know what she's dreaming about, but it makes me wish I was with her." It fits Rob's personality but also provides a subtle window into a mind learning to make room for whatever comes flooding in, regardless of whether it fits into any pre-existing structure.
However, Messrs. Lindsay-Abaire and Bobbie must share the blame for the grisly Act II sequence in which Rob gets advice from none other than Bruce Springsteen (Jon Patrick Walker) on addressing his past Top 5 breakups. These inquiries took up far more of both the film and the book; shrinking them to about 20 minutes of stage time makes some sense in shifting the attention to the Rob-Laura relationship, but the plot is pretty thin without them. And the Springsteen on display here — the tightjeans-and-bandanna, "Born in the U.S.A." version circa 1984 — embodies the one period in the Boss's entire career that most music geeks would shun.
But "High Fidelity" isn't aiming for the sorts of fans who prefer grittier Springsteen albums like "Nebraska" and "The Rising." "Born in the U.S.A." sold 15 million units. Everyone knows it, not just the snobs. Appealing to this mainstream audience would appear to be reasons 1 through 5 behind his appearance, along with so much else in this fatally dumbed-down effort. If this show were to somehow stumble into Championship Vinyl, Celine Dion and John Tesh would have a new partner in crime.
Open run (249 W. 45th St., between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, 212-239-6200).