Almost Famous, the stage musical from Cameron Crowe’s 2000 cult movie of the same name, is the perfect example of what Stephen Sondheim has called a “Why?” musical. Considering how excellent the original film still is with all of its songs, why did this need to be a stage musical?
What Crowe has done in writing his book for the new show is recreate almost exactly every scene in the movie starting from the time when 15-year-old protagonist William Miller meets rock critic Lester Bangs, including the bus and plane sequences. The best lines in the stage version are recognizable from the film and nothing of equal stature has been added to the version now on stage at the Bernard J. Jacobs Theatre. The new songs credited to composer Tom Kitt with lyrics by Crowe and Kitt add little to the work as they do not forward the story. A good many of the iconic songs from the film make their appearance but as staged by director Jeremy Herrin and choreographer Sarah O’Gleby they are the least effective numbers in the show.
In casting the musical, director Herrin has made an attempt to find performers who so resemble the actors in the film that they become pale imitations of their now more famous predecessors (Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kate Hudson, Anna Paquin). Derek McLane’s scenery wants us to think that we are at a rock concert; as a result the stage is surrounded by ungainly metal scaffolding that remains in view throughout the show. The new musical offers no surprises not already seen the film. So did this need to be a stage show? The answer is obvious.
Skipping the movie’s prologue when the young hero is 11, the show starts in 1973 when aspiring 15-year-old rock journalist William Miller of San Diego meets his hero Lester Bangs, “the world’s greatest rock critic,” who gives him an assignment for Creem Magazine to interview Black Sabbath. At the San Diego Sports Arena, he meets veteran groupie Penny Lane who gets him backstage and introduces him to the opening band Stillwater, based on Crowe’s year following the Allman Brothers Band. William next hears from Ben Fong-Torres, music editor of Rolling Stone magazine, who thinking he is a college student, gives him the assignment to follow Stillwater for what might be a cover story.
Over the objections of William’s mother, disapproving college professor Elaine, William is given the four days before his high school graduation to go on the road with the band on its “Almost Famous” tour which now includes Penny who has hit it off with lead guitarist Russell Hammond. Along the way (which includes gigs in West Hollywood, Arizona, Greenville, South Carolina, Cleveland, and New York), it becomes obvious that lead singer Jeff Bebe and Russell are not getting along and that Russell and Penny have become an item. William becomes more sophisticated, meets other rock stars and loses his virginity, although he can’t get Russell to stay put long enough to give him an interview. When all seems lost over the Rolling Stone article, Russell in his search for Penny Lane at her home in San Diego is sent to William’s house and all ends happily for the characters we have been following.The lengthy score includes six songs from the film, Crowe and Nancy Wilson’s “Fever Dog” which remains Stillwater’s breakout hit, Lynyard Skynard’s “Simple Man,” Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” Cat Stevens’ “The Wind” and Joni Mitchell’s “River” which are sung, and Wilson’s “Cabin the Air which is an instrumental. Although this is not a juke box musical, additionally Ron Davies’ “It Ain’t Easy” (made famous by Three Dog Night) is sung by the company and Greg Allman’s “Midnight Rider” becomes a solo for Russell. The best new songs are for Penny Lane and Elaine: the lilting “Morocco” and the witty “Elaine’s Lecture.”
Except for Solea Pfeiffer’s ferocious performance as Penny Lane, the cast is generally tame. As in the movie, Casey Lakes’ William remains a passive observer until he loses his temper with Penny Lane over her life choices near the end. Chris Wood as guitarist Russell Hammond is rather bland and low-key, though Drew Gehling as quirky vocalist Jeff Bebe comes to vivid life when angry. Rob Colletti is amusing as rock journalist superstar Lester Bangs, as well as playing Red Dog and John Bonham. As William’s hypercritical mother Elaine, Anika Larsen has modeled herself so much on McDormand’s performance in the movie that she seems to be playing her understudy. As Penny Lane’s “band aids,” who are also following the rock stars to inspire them, Julia Cameron, Katie Ladner and Jana Djenne Jackson are most in tune with the backstage rock milieu. Emily Schultheis as William’s older sister Anita, who introduces him to rock music, is rather stereotyped as the rebellious 1970’s teen who becomes a flight stewardess.
There is a great deal of scenery needed to portray all of the venues that the story entails. In Herrin’s staging, set pieces by designer Derek McLane are continually spinning on and off stage. In one scene, William follows Russell through a series of corridors backstage at one of the arenas, a door frame is continually repositioned so that they can walk nonstop for a good many minutes, rather dizzying and pointless. McLane’s video projections vary from the realistic to the abstract. Most prominent is Natasha Katz’s lighting design which changes on a dime in this cinematic staging and continually turns the stage into a convincing rock concert venue. Costume designer David Zinn appears to have been asked to recreate the costumes from the movie and many of them look as though they are exactly the same, but with slight modifications. Campbell Young Associates are responsible for the 1973 hair, wig and make-ups designs which make the actors resemble their film counterparts so closely.
If you have never seen the movie, you will be unaware of how much the stage show resembles it. However, as the movie has been a cult film for the last 22 years, it is unlikely that many audience members will not be fans of the film. As the stage show offers nothing the movie did not already do and the new score is not very memorable, they will most likely be disappointed. Almost Famous, The Musical is one of those stage shows where the movie remains the gold standard and the new incarnation is only second best.
Almost Famous (open run)
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.almostfamousthemusical.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission