By Barry Reszel
Wicker Park’s Refuge Records, the vacant storefront transformed into “the last real record store on earth” for Refuge Theatre Project’s remount of last year’s wildly successful High Fidelity, feels a bit Cheers-like.
Sometimes you gotta go…
Greeted at the doorway at 1415 N. Ashland Ave. by company founders Morgan and Ross Egan, infant daughter Rosie in tow, I was reminded that our review of the company’s first show two years ago told readers that “Next thing you know, Refuge Theatre Project might just be the next big thing.”
Kicking off year three with a pre-opening night extension of a proven hit bodes well for this prediction’s accuracy. That’s particularly true in the wake of recent abrupt closures of other shows (Helldrivers of Daytona, The Bardy Bunch) and companies (Musically Human Theatre and, apparently, Lake Forest Theatre).
It makes Refuge itself the story this winter (there’s a bisemous phrase). More important, even, than this review’s bottom line, which is: If you haven’t seen High Fidelity, treat yourself to a little refuge from the cold and get out to Wicker Park. And if you’ve seen it already, by all means, go again.
There are a couple nuances to point out in Director/Choreographer Christopher Pazdernik‘s restaging. The first is that it’s set in the same neighborhood as Stephen Frears‘ 2000 feature film starring John Cusack, on which this musical is based. Second is that Pazdernik, now Refuge’s artistic director, welcomes Jameson Wentworth, Elena Romanowski and Darren Patin to the mostly intact cast from 2016.
Jeff nominee Max DeTogne again plays record store owner Rob, with Chicago Music Awards Best Female Vocalist nominee Liz Chidester reprising her role as on again-off again girlfriend Laura. The rest of the deadbeats, delinquents, exes and friends are hilariously portrayed by cast returnees Nick Druzbanski, Caitlin Jackson, Lewis Rawlinson, Noah Berman, Lizzie Schwarzrock, Amy Stricker, Britain Gebhardt, Bradley Halverson and Jacob Fjare.
The accolades published here last year are intact for this remount as well. To wit:
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.
Much like the vintage record store it depicts, the production is small, unique, charming, quirky, intimate and incredible. Director Pazdernik is brilliant for bringing this all to vivid life.
Our leading lady Laura, brought to life by 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.
Standing behind the metaphorical mixing board is the former DJ himself, Rob, played by the marvelous DeTogne. This is unquestionably his show, as he is onstage nearly the entire proceeding. He commands every bit of this live album.
Ian Rigg’s full review of the 2016 staging, including a plot summary, may be read here here.
Yet as noted above, this production itself is a single representation of great things ahead for Refuge. Pazdernik was named artistic director in November as Ross Egan moved into an executive director’s role with Morgan Egan continuing as managing director.
“It became very clear as the company grew so quickly that the sheer amount of work that needed to be done was far greater than our existing resources,” Ross said.
“Having worked with Christopher Pazdernik during our production of High Fidelity, it was clear that his passion and innovation for music theatre in Chicago made him a clear choice to lead the artistic direction of the organization. More importantly, Chris trusted us when we told him we wanted to do musicals in non-traditional theatrical spaces and he made something extremely special that has molded our company into what it is today.”
Other growth measures include increasing the number of musical productions from two to three each year; coming in 2017 will be Things to Ruin: The Songs of Joe Iconis and the Chicago premiere of Lysistrata Jones. Also, Refuge is now among the ranks of the Jeff-eligible.
But while growth may be one indicator of success, I prefer pointing to 11 cast members (of 14) who enthusiastically returned for this High Fidelity remount.
I feel the vibe of a millennials-driven BoHo or Theo Ubique, where superior talent is given a space to tell and sing a story.
I buy into the mission of producing contemporary musical theatre free from anything extra and telling stories about people dealing with life in a way that’s meaningful and fun.
And I love being greeted by an infant before watching her parents’ 2-year-old take its next confident step.
Sometimes you gotta go…
Patrons, buy tickets. Performers, put this company’s auditions on your calendars. Investors, call Ross.
Refuge Theatre Project presents “High Fidelity” through March 25 at Refuge Records, 1415 N. Ashland Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.