High Fidelity (at the Colonial Theatre through October 22) tries to sell itself as kick-ass rock right from the curtain speech: you are to turn off your fucking cell phones, and if you don’t like that language you can “grab your husband and get the hell out.” But the in-your-face attitude is to no avail. The fatal irony built into High Fidelity is that most fans of the 1995 Nick Hornby novel and the 2000 Stephen Frears film upon which it is based will hate it. The score for this Broadway-bound new musical about a rock-obsessed slacker in a romantic crisis is ersatz, whereas its core characters demand the real thing. So the question is: will a Broadway audience, the Rent cult as opposed to the Sondheim crowd, buy into it?
The show — a rare out-of-town tryout still being honed for Broadway — is not without merits, and it’s certainly not without energy, which Tony winner Walter Bobbie’s production revs like an engine. But a lot of loud electric guitar and bass do not a distinctive rock score make, and the best of Tom Kitt & Amanda Green’s songs for the musical are not the hard-driving numbers (among them a “Born To Run” knockoff sung by a dream-sequence Springsteen) but the quirky novelties, which include a delighted paean to celebrity-sex connection once removed called “I Slept with Someone (Who Slept with Lyle Lovett)” that might, at a more laconic pace, be sung by Lovett were he not the first of its six degrees of sexual separation.
It is as easy to see why High Fidelity would appeal to constructors of a musical as it is to sense it would likely fall short. Rock-snob record-store owner Rob’s world is dominated by music. Here his shop, Championship Vinyl, has been transferred to New York, but precious old Depeche Mode albums can reside anywhere. In David Lindsay-Abaire’s book, as in the source material, commitment-phobic Rob compiles a list of his desert-island all-time Top Five most memorable break-ups in the wake of his latest, stubbornly refusing to put defecting lawyer girlfriend Laura on the list. Instead he drowns his sorrows at the shop — grubbily, lovingly rendered in Anna Louizos’s ingenious foldout set, an origami exercise in towering brick. Amid the vinyl, he’s kept company by “the musical moron twins,” hanger-on employees Dick (an irresistibly laid-back Christian Anderson, whose “No Problem” is another oddball highlight) and belligerent wanna-be rock star Barry (Jay Klaitz, blatantly but successfully channeling Jack Black). Of course, it would be absurd to expect the musical to replicate the tone of the film. John Cusack’s soulful Rob could barely bestir himself to soliloquy; Will Chase, as bristling as his bed head, is a musical dynamo, manfully selling one mediocre evocation of pissed-off heartbreak after another.
Green, the daughter of Broadway icon Adolph Green, turns out some clever lyrics for, among other tunes, the folky “Ready To Settle,” which better exemplifies the mind set of Hornby’s late-blooming-coming-of-age novel than the compromise-free ending tacked on here in the form of a swooning, pure-Broadway ballad, “Wonderful Love” (nicely sung by Chase and impossibly tall, brittly sexy Jenn Colella as reuning Rob and Laura). And the show has some audacious fun with the unctuous guru with whom Laura takes temporary refuge, here a sitar-swathed therapist who handled Kurt Cobain’s intervention (hardly a professional recommendation). But when it comes to the rock-and-roll heart of High Fidelity, what’s implanted here is artificial.