By Ian Rigg
Four months ago, I was broken up with.
Our three-year relationship ended seemingly out of the blue, with torrential tears on both ends. It was agony. It still is. I found solace in my headphones. I was searching through my discography for comfort, for healing, for answers, for why. I relied heavily on my absolute favorite artist, the late, great David Bowie.
Bowie’s recent passing certainly didn’t help my heartache. I felt I lost a friend. How could I mourn a man I never met? We don’t love musicians because we know them. We love them because they help us know ourselves.
Refuge Theatre Project’s production of High Fidelity helps us know ourselves. It’s a musical about music, and what is music about? It’s about life. It’s about breakups. It’s about love. It’s about lies. It’s about authenticity. It’s about knowing yourself, and reconciling with it, even reconciling for it.
High Fidelity tells the tale of Rob, a man with a lot of reconciling to do. Rob is an affable, amiable, yet acerbic and aimless owner of a vintage record store with perhaps four customers. Championship Records is a haven for a colorful cast of characters, oddballs who crave obscurity because obscurity is authentic. To them, the store is as much cult property as the movie and book versions of High Fidelity are to their fans. It’s their way to belong, to reckon with reality.
Rob has been hit with too much reality lately: his longtime girlfriend Laura has left him. He tries to laugh and deny and run from the pain, but comes out of his cloud of confusion only to find she’s with someone else. And so Rob calls her too many times, and retreats from reality, resolving to relive his “Top 5 Breakups,” making sense of his feelings through his fantasies and his friends.
While this description suggests drama, High Fidelity is decidedly a comedy; and that’s true to life. Life is a tragicomedy in two acts.
Refuge Theatre Project brings audiences a gem in High Fidelity, by bringing us what Rob would call “a life in vinyl.” Rocking in an intimate installation space, the production team spared no expense in rendering their reality, turning an upstairs loft into an exquisitely detailed recreation of a record store.
From the moment patrons walk into the space, they are perusing Championship Records. The front door greets with a handwritten sign that says “come on in, we’re open!” Climbing upstairs, like record stores most will remember fondly from high school summers past, Jagger screams, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and patrons are handed programs cleverly designed to look like CD inserts, with actor’s bios/past roles as track listings.
Michelle Manni, responsible for set and props design, must truly be commended. The recent set up feels as if it’s been there for years. There’s a vintage cash register, microphone and sound equipment along with an awe-inspiring amount of cassettes, CDs, and records. Adding to the lived in look are artisanal posters: a taped up sign for “employees only restroom,” strips of paper requesting “Young gun slingers wanted to start band,” flyers that remind you of that one friend’s band you made an excuse not to go see. The rustic brick walls only add to the verisimilitude. Even the sound technician blends into the scenery with his mixing board and beard. It’s as smart as it is stunning.
Much like the vintage record store it depicts, the production is small, unique, charming, quirky, intimate and incredible. Director Christopher Pazdernik is brilliant for bringing this all to vivid life. Pazdernik’s vision encapsulates an era of in-betweens: the in-between of record and cassette, of cassette and CD, of coming millennium and the old, and the in-between where our intrepid in-betweeners dwell.
The phenomenal pop-rock performance feels like the recording of a live album or music video. That’s thanks in large part to Jessica Doyle’s subtle, snappy, expertly timed lighting design and Richard Schroeder’s sumptuous sound design, perfectly managing the mics of the cast and pit. Like in a live album, not all of the moments land (a joke made about Rob’s “Cosby sweater” fell to crickets and winces). But much of this is the fault of the material. It more resembles a live album because of the ephemeral magic conjured before us. Pazdernik and team created a true microcosm in this music store.
Derrick Valenti’s crafty costume design tells us everything we need to know about these characters and their era before they sing a single word. Hideous sweaters, baggier bootcut jeans, shaggy or overstyled hairdos and one character’s culturally appropriated outfits all make this ecosystem shine. The action is managed by the capable Jc Widman. Like Chekov’s Championship Records, nearly every item onstage comes into play in some way, right down to choreographed covers of LPs in the hands of customers. Pazdernik’s choreography is sick and slick, spanning many styles. There are steps in the style of soul backup singers, grinding like a gangsta rap video, and party scenes occasionally reminiscent of the Peanuts in a grunge phase (and I mean that as a compliment of the highest degree, to be both juvenile and jubilant).
But what truly shines in this show are the performances. The actors’ portrayals are as detailed, nuanced and lovingly crafted as the set itself. We’ve our core heroes, but many actors take on many characters, and it’s a resounding success. The magic is in the minutiae you’d risk missing if you blinked. It comes in the comical kleptomania and angelic cello playing of Lewis Rawlinson, the ability to slay in platform heels of Will Wilhelm, the tight trumpet and hilarious sheepish reactions of Jacob Fjare, the dead-on timing and face-melting riff at the end from Britain Gebhardt, the vivacious posing and lugubrious, longing stare from Kelly Baskin, the indie spellbinding and arthouse allure of Amy Stricker, the quirky charm and doting glances by Lizzie Schwarzrock in her overalls and side ponytail and the masterfully awkward “The Most Pitiful Man In The World” brought to beautiful life by Noah Berman (who does another excellent turn in a surprise role in the second act).
This is an excellent ensemble, with obvious chemistry and exquisite harmonies, particularly by the vexing vixens that make up Rob’s choir of ex-girlfriends. Several shine among the cast, like Tony Carter, who plays Laura’s rebound Ian. Ian is the sophisticated, worldly, vegan, meditating man with muscles you hate because you wish you were him, but mainly because he’s with your lady. He stalks onto the stage with the riotous song “Ian’s Here” and has an utter blast with the part. He plays it with such pretention, preening, and eclectic eccentricity that he’d make a Jason Schwartzman character roll his eyes. You’ll love to loathe him, which means he’s done his job well.
Of similar hilarity and sheer talent is Caitlin Jackson as Rob and Laura’s friend Liz. She is a riot as one of Rob’s top 5 ex girlfriends, but then brings a danish onstage for Rob, and brings the house down. She belts like you wouldn’t believe, with such phenomenal power and passion. And her comedic timing is second to none. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else employing an exercise ball to such hilarious effect.
Stealing scenes and hearts, Nick Druzbanski and Stephen Garrett are brilliant as Rob’s begrudging employees and beloved friends Barry and Dick. Druzbanski plays Jack Black’s character from the movie, but makes Barry’s bombastic antics entirely his own. He rails against corporate capitalism, talks a mile a minute and is utterly hilarious, slaying in the closing number. Of more subtle but side-splitting aplomb is Garrett as Dick. He perfectly portrays a character who may have one foot in our universe and the other in another, wide-eyed, spacey and sweet. He was a joy to behold, with impeccable delivery of such sincere yet deadpan lines as “It was a Hiroshima of the soul” and “Do I have the blues? Sometimes. It’s actually Seasonal Affective Disorder…” The two are totally in tandem, and their interaction and power ballad harmonies with Rob are, as the kids are saying, dope.
Our leading lady Laura, brought to life by Liz Chidester, is a wonder. Just as Rob craves more of her, so do we the audience. She is part Pat Benatar, part Stevie Nicks, all Liz Chidester. “Number 5 With A Bullet,”, backed by an all-girl group, killed everyone in the audience before resurrecting them nanoseconds later for fear they’d miss something. And yet there is a tremendous ache and sensitivity to Laura, a woman at wit’s end with her boyfriend and struggling with so much unseen. She was tremendous.
Rob is our protagonist, but he is essentially his own antagonist. He’s a charismatic but marvellously myopic man. We see the show through his eyes, and he isn’t necessarily the most reliable narrator. The show reveals this one-dimensionality to be art; as it goes on, more and more layers appear to characters, as Rob realizes they were there all along.
Each and every actor adjusts accordingly as we rock through the story, expertly embodying their roles and bringing out so many facets, as if they were expertly being mixed. Standing behind the metaphorical mixing board is the former DJ himself, Rob, played by the marvelous Max DeTogne. This is unquestionably his show, as he is onstage nearly the entire proceeding. He commands every bit of this live album. I admit I was a pint worried after his chipper opening monologue that the acting would not be as authentic as the set, but this was either deft direction to begin the show with energy, or merely me adjusting the volume on my own speakers. Any doubts were dispelled by DeTogne, who deftly demanded my attention and bore his entire heart and soul before us. Just as Rob had the rug pulled out from under him, he pulls it from under us in some stunning revelations. But DeTonge has earned so many protagonist points with his charm and singing chops that we still sympathize and root for him. It’s a powerhouse performance by the frontman of one beautiful band. He’s the capstone of an authentic, apoplectic, amazing show.
High Fidelity is immensely personal, because there’s a Championship Records within all of us. You listen to music, you look back on your life, and the lyrics that accompany it, and you hurt. But it’s a beautiful hurt. You’re warmed by your capacity to hurt, because it reminds you of your capacity to care. You look back on all your lovely memories, and you’re glad they’re there. You can finally smile and say, as the characters sing:
“I wouldn’t change a thing.”
If you “hate mass market, bring your a$$ and park it” at Refuge Theatre Project’s High Fidelity.
Refuge Theatre Project’s “High Fidelity” performs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through February 28th at Refuge Records, 666 W. Hubbard, Chicago. More information and tickets ($22.09) are available online here or by phone at (773) 231-7691.