Oscar-winning writer-director Cameron Crowe’s screenplay about the coming of age of a teenage rock journalist in the ’70s, “Almost Famous,” looks largely intact in Broadway’s latest pedestrian movie. For those who love the 2000’s semi-autobiographical film, this version provides a nearly complete re-enactment of the original (via a book written by Crowe), with some new songs (by Tom Kate and Crowe) mixed with a large fixed list of tunes from the era.
It’s all entertaining enough – no doubt a certain draw for nostalgia as well as the crowd – but there’s nothing unusual about turning up on the stage. Not even almost.
However, for those who missed this gem of the movie – and even for those fans who deal with the straightforward version by the numbers – there are pleasures to be found. After all, Crowe created a remarkable story with colorful yet contrasting characters, original details and both humor. (“If you thought Mick Jagger would still be trying to be a rock star at 50, you’re unfortunately, unfortunately mistaken,” one record company executive said.)
It’s all set in a transitional time when the outlaw and free spirit music of the 1960s were being dumped, labeled and repurposed into an all-consuming commercial industry. This loss of innocence is a theme that Crowe subtly incorporates into his main character arcs as well, particularly early teen William Miller (he is a fan of Casey’s fanatics) and Crowe’s attitude and kind of rock n-roll apple.
15-year-old William is drawn to the albums given to him by his older sister, Anita (Emily Schulthes), to be a rock writer. He first gets a gig with Creem magazine and then finds work with Rolling Stone, which allows him to board the tour bus of mid-level rock band Stillwater on the journey of his life.
Just a phone call throughout the itinerary is William’s mentor, rock writer Lester Bangs (playing perfectly with both exhausted sarcasm and brutal respect by Rob Colletti), who warns the kid not to make friends with the musicians he covers. “They make you feel good and you’re not nice,” says Bangs, who advises the boy to be “honest and ruthless.”
But soon William is drawn to the charms of the old soul group – oops, “fan girl” – Penny Lane (Sulia Pfeiffer), lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Chris Wood) and bypassing Full Access.
William’s fascination with the liberated, communal, sexy, sexist world of rock ‘n’ roll – and all the joys, adventures, and aches that come with it – is the heart and soul of the film, and so is here. But the dramatic rhythm remains in the constant struggle between home and music, dreams and reality, freedom and responsibility.
The musical works best when he steps away from the film for some personal moments, such as “No Friends” haunting William, Penny’s sad “Morocco”, and the duet of Penny and Russell’s “The Nighttime Sky’s Got Nothing on You,” all of which impact the tones of loneliness, longing and love. .
Kate and Crowe also designed several instrumental numbers sung by mum Eileen (Annika Larsen), William’s no-nonsense but supportive mother, and an anxious homeschooled teacher. Here, she gives various variations of the film’s great monologues: one is a lecture to her class in which she memorably announces, “Rock stars kidnapped my son,” and in another, she gives Russell a dose of fatherly horror over the phone. Larsen captures both moments beautifully, with just the right comedic charisma and heart.
But these clever original songs only tell half the story. We’ve never heard an expression – in a way that only musical theater can do – what this music means to these characters. Instead, in the main dramatic moments, we get performances of the songs of the era, notably Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” as a sort of carpool karaoke, Joni Mitchell’s “River” and Yusef Islam’s “Wind” (aka Cat Stevens). But even in the small moments, the instrumental music ignores the original songs and turns to tunes from Nancy Wilson, Ron Davis, Stevie Wonder, Greg Allman, Jimmy Page and Robert Pointe, among others.
Like Russell, Wood plays Jackson Brown in a mistake, being so low-key that he often fades away. Like Penny Lane, Pfeiffer is beautiful and navigates well in the raucous air of rock bliss as well as her hard landing in the real world.
Drew Gehling is having fun — a lot of fun, actually — as lead singer Jeff Pepe, with a cartoon that laughs but steals the reality character. And because his debut is so impressive here, the likes keep admiration for the show and its personality constant.
The masterful play is by Jeremy Herren (“Wolf Hall”) with a busy, busy movement by choreographer Sarah Oglebie. Derek McLane’s collections are cool and functional, looking all ready for the tour, while David Zinn enjoys period fashion. Kitt’s in-place arrangements and orchestras, as well as musical direction by Bryan Perri and sound design by Peter Hylenski, all make the world of Stillwater feel like a real deal.
But missed theatrical opportunities abound which could have enhanced this theatrical version, especially in rethinking the female characters. It feels like missed opportunities because the show fails to make the other groups more generic, or to make Penny less male and more than a fully realized human, or give us a musical connection between William and his sister.
Another thing the show is missing: the respect that musical theater is also an art form, not just a commercial commodity — something Lester Pang can relate to.
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