‘High Fidelity’ was whacky.
Spinning us right round like a record, Beenleigh Theatre Group has showcased a whacky and comical version of ‘High Fidelity’. The thinly veiled jukebox styled musical packed a punch in the Crete Street Theatre as the company explored an excitable work commonly forgotten amongst our industry.
Considered a rare piece of pop culture, ‘High Fidelity’ has been adapted for all forms of performance – that is, from a book into a film, to stage and then to television. The 2000 movie version switched the setting to America and saw blockbuster heavyweights John Cusack, Jack Black and Catherine Zeta-Jones embrace the iconic characters. Six-years later after the movie, ‘High Fidelity’ found its way to the stage, where it had a brief stint on Broadway, before disappearing into obscurity and landing the description of being ‘underrated’. Essentially a flop during its time on Broadway, ‘High Fidelity’ is certainly a risky choice for any ambitious theatre group.
In the stage version, the story is based primarily on the novel and tells of Rob Gordon (played by Will Boyd) and his obsession with making top five lists. While running a very unsuccessful record store, Rob goes through a painful break-up, with Laura (played by Katya Bryant), and embarks on an aching journey of self-discovery as he reminisces on his top five lost loves. It’s a typical boy meets girl storyline amplified by a rock-n-roll influenced score that has the potential to have some audiences grooving.
For Beenleigh Theatre Group, the edgy marketing and branding had viewers intrigued from the get-go. The musical was styled with so much personality and a definitive flair. Willing a rocking night of entertainment, it’s a shame this sharpness didn’t translate to stage, as some action, and choices, were lack-lustre and confusing.
Director Michael Skelton, with assistance from Sharon Moore, handled the basic script well and together they presented the production with their own interpretation. Although the show was genuinely comedic, at times it felt as though the audience were laughing for the wrong reasons. With a quirky directorial style, Skelton seemed to go for an ‘everything happening’ kind of approach. There were so many subplots and out of focus activities that more often than not, the focus was pulled away from the storyline. It was almost like the script wasn’t entertaining enough so new stories had been created completely unrelated to the actual text.
Audience members were left distracted, rather than engaged in the purpose of the scene. Some examples of where attention was drawn away from the plot included a redundant birthday party by ensemble members, bubbles coming out of the toilet entranceway and actors eating KFC during emotional highs. The show had been injected with essences of ridiculousness to enforce laughter instead of relying on the comedy found in the actual gags of the script.
Another inconsistency was the time placement of the show. According to the programme, the movie is set in 2000, but there was no clear indication of where we were to place the world of ‘High Fidelity’. What we got was Wicked posters from 2013, iPhones, 90s Nokia sound effects, 80s frizzy prom wigs and Woolworths-bags as props. It wasn’t clear whether the show was revamped for a modern audience, or if a lack of attention to detail had missed these crucial errors. It moved the play into an abstract space, which affected the storyline’s relatability.
Choreographer Stewie Matthews created routines that commonly featured the large ensemble ‘en masse’ to aid the musical numbers. While the movements were simple and easy to follow, their inclusion often felt unnecessary. Dancers were restricted by the lack of stage space or would enter at inappropriate moments, causing a distraction to the main subplot. Some sense of stillness may have enhanced the overall vision. In emotional scenes, feelings should have played out, rather than a snazzy dance, which didn’t relate.
Set Design by Scott Taylor featured rotating flats that flipped between record shops, apartments and clubs. It seemed to work for the show but could have been laid out simpler to avoid black-outs and lengthy changes. Rough handling by stage crew during scenes saw a bunch of props smash to the ground, and sets being changed at the wrong time. There also seemed to be a large amount of underutilised space towards the front and back of the stage, which left some scenes feeling empty. The large ensemble also was squished between record stands. The script made mention that the record shop had a lack of sales but was frequented by customers often, however, there was an overwhelming amount that made the stage feel too crowded. Almost like there wasn’t enough room planned to accommodate everyone.
Overall the set structures did transport us to where we needed to go with the storyline. A great touch was the use of structural windows with LED backlighting for the song ‘Cryin’ In The Rain’. This modern approach was architecturally pleasing. Crew wheeled the trolley set piece on and off with ease, and the simplicity provided space for dancers to really perform.
As Musical Director, Christine Leah led the band with finesse. At times, it was enlightening to watch musicians switch between instruments to play out a score heavily influenced by existing songs and bands (a nice piece of information in the programme!). Although the band felt small, they were big in sound and support.
‘High Fidelity’ was filled with a large cast, where many had to traverse through multiple characters and costume changes. Without a doubt, standout performances came from Isaac Tibbs as Dick and Lauren Conway in the dual role of Anna and Charlie. Tibbs had clarity to his voice, which was extremely pleasant to watch, and his characterisation of the feeble, understated record shop worker was perfectly executed. Conway was incredibly versatile as she switched between a nerdy and cute Anna, into the highly seductive, ex-girlfriend Charlie. As a dancer, it was no wonder Conway was front and centre for all ensemble routines as she had the most energy and precision in her movements. For Tibbs and Conway, there performance of ‘It’s No Problem (Reprise)’ was jaw-dropping, especially when they held their powerful endnotes, which had audience members exclaiming, ‘boy, can they sing’.
Another great performance came from Bradley Chapman as the hippie, vegan-loving, Ian. Chapman was eccentrically creepy in the role and provided much of the comic relief – especially when doing bouts of yoga or going full pervert with a pillow. As an audience, you didn’t know whether you liked or loved him, but that’s exactly where the role needed to sit.
Carly Wilson was sassy and demanding in the role of Liz, and she showcased her stunning vocal ability in ‘She Goes’. Unfortunately, direction and choreography left Wilson exerting herself in most of her scenes – with her song being overchoreographed, and her scene work featuring an over-the-top exercise regime on a bouncy ball. Wilson navigated the challenges professionally, but it would have been great if the creative team found a balance to see her stand tall in her moments.
Katya Bryant was also confident and a dream vocally as the unsure, most recent ex-girlfriend, Laura. Lachlan Clark was flippantly funny and accurately aggressive as an aspiring musician, Barry. Connor Bryant was unobtrusive as the older employee. His white sneakers and blue-wash jeans captured his identity remarkably. And Will Boyd as Rob Gordon was energetic in carrying the storyline to where it needed to go.
It would have been nice to see the light and shade within the text explored more, the cast maintain their vigorous energy, and elements within the styling embrace a ‘less is more’ approach. Some grounding within the overall presentation would have made the themes land stronger and the text more easy to follow for audiences.
Overall, ‘High Fidelity’ at Beenleigh Theatre Group will have you laughing – even if it is over a bunch of ‘what the’ moments. Kudos should be given to any theatre and creative team presenting daring work and it’s exciting to see the artistic freedom in this particular piece.
‘High Fidelity’ performs until Saturday, 13 July 2019 at Crete Street Theatre. For bookings, visit www.beenleightheatregroup.com