Refuge Theatre Project, the no frills, contemporary music theater group that brought you Next Thing You Know and Glory Days in 2015, is starting off 2016 with a run of High Fidelity. Refuge stages bare bones, affordable performances with an aim at accessibility, and their production of High Fidelity achieves exactly that.
Adapted from the 1995 Nick Hornby novel turned cult favorite 2000 film, David Lindsay-Abaire’s book reapportions stage time to the characters that deserve it. Namely there’s less time given to the five past girlfriends and more of a focus on Laura’s character. Director Christopher Pazdernik’s fun and campy choreography backs up the emphasis on Laura’s strength and worthiness showing her as confident and sexy in a tight black dress leading the pack of heartbreaker vixens in “Number Five with a Bullet.” Liz Chidester is a perfect Laura, a nice mix of pretty, girl-next-door looks and a killer voice.
Max DeTogne as Rob had a strong voice and the necessary likeability to play the beloved John Cusack lead role. I think we love John Cusack because he seems like such a regular guy, Hollywood’s quintessential guy next door if that exists. In the movie and often in performances of the musical the Rob character alone feels like a real person. His lovers are unapproachably hot or Lisa Bonet level cool. Pazdernik’s rendition made all the characters feel like someone you know. That’s the beauty of this performance. The audience sits in folding chairs in a rented room, a “pop-up theatre,” decorated to look like a record store. The actors perform on a small patch of floor in the center of the room, and sing and dance feet from the audience. The performance was so welcoming that I felt like I was hanging out in a living room more so than a theater. The BYOB policy complements the casual at-home feel. Musicals are all about frivolous, campy entertainment. Realism isn’t on the agenda, but this intimate, stripped down style of performance creates a rare chance for musical drama you can place yourself in.
Other stand out performances came from Stephen Garrett as Dick and Caitlin Jackson as Liz. Garrett’s acting was subtle and he showed nice depth of emotion, a rarity in musical theater. Caitlin Jackson’s Liz was hilarious. Abundantly boisterous and sassy, she played the perfect funny best friend. Joan Cusack couldn’t complain about her performance. Nick Druzbanski is a strong Barry, and playing the role that made Jack Black famous isn’t an easy feat.
Stage manager, JC Wildman, did an excellent job working with a small space. And the sound direction and management was impressive for such a sonically difficult seating arrangement. Derrick Valenti’s costumes felt like they could fit in the ’90s or today. The dialogue was nicely up to date with references to contemporary music, and the story felt like it still fit today’s Chicago instead of the pre-yuppified, grunge Wicker Park of the ’90s in which it was originally set.
There are two more weekends to catch Refuge Theatre Project’s performance of High Fidelity. The show runs Friday-Sunday at 8pm and closes on February 28. Tickets are $22 each and they sell out fast so purchase in advance online. The Refuge Records pop-up location is located at 666 W. Hubbard St.