Almost Famous Strikes an Off-Key Chord on Broadway

Casey Likes and Rob Colletti in Broadway’s Almost Famous: The Musical. Photo by Matt Murphy.

The Broadway Theatre Review: Almost Famous

By Ross

People love this film. As do I, although maybe not as much as some of the mega-fans that surrounded me the night I went to see Almost Famous: The Musical which made its Broadway debut at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre last week. The new musical, with music and lyrics by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) and book and lyrics by Cameron Crowe, the man who wrote and directed the 2000 film that this show is based, tries its solid best to pull us into the intoxicating glitter world of those 1973 Rock and Roll days and have us run with it. Which, it seems, if you want to listen to the legendary critic Lester Bangs, dynamically portrayed in this musical stage adaptation by Rob Colletti (Chicago’s The Book of Mormon) who phones in a lot of funny quips from the sidelines, believes that the art of music is dangerously teetering on the verge of spiritual collapse. All due to corporate consumption and mainstream acceptance, and he ain’t kidding. “It’s over,” he says with wild dismay, as only a jaded music critic can, and if this musical is any indication of its status on Broadway, he might be right, unfortunately.

Based on Crowe’s personal experience as a music writer, the stage musical follows, like the film, a rock band, the generic-sounding Stillwater, through the landscape of music and the country, finding himself along the way. Fronted by lead singer Jeff Bebe, and played to the max by Drew Gehling (Broadway’s Waitress), the band rocks and rolls over on tour, infighting like every great band we know, all while being watched and notated by a young Crowe-inspired soul falling hard for those bandmate feelings. The story has a solid base material, one that should have made it easy to rock and roll a stage musical out hard and strong, and it’s sorta strange that it doesn’t. There is little in the sound and feeling that equates to the originality or drive of the source material, sadly, and that’s the most disappointing bit. There is so much possibility there, especially because, like the movie, the emotional spotlight is on a young endearing eighteen, no, sixteen, no, actually fifteen-year-old boy, William Miller, played enthusiastically by Casey Likes (MGM’s “Dark Harvest“), who sits in a suburban home with his overprotective mother and rebellious sister, listening to all the great bands of the time and dreaming of getting out and making it big in the music industry as a writer for a magazine like Rolling Stone. And like the movie, we embrace that dream, wanting to cheer him on for his leaving that life behind, and arriving at his dream, even if he doesn’t have the pass he needs to get there. And we do, throughout this staged musical, but not because of the musical itself.

Emily Schultheis, Anika Larsen, and Casey Likes in Broadway’s Almost Famous: The Musical. Photo by Matt Murphy.

We feel the honest naive rebellion in Likes’ bones as he stands before us, loving but forever being embarrassed by his overprotective mother, played determinately by Anika Larsen (Broadway’s Beautiful). Those moments with her made me miss the wise sharpness of Frances McDormand’s killer delivery, but Larsen manages well, even if that arc is as stereotypically structured as the flat work done by scenic and video designer Derek McLane (Broadway’s Moulin Rouge!) with stadium lighting designed by Natasha Katz (Broadway’s The Prom) and sound by Peter Hylenski (Broadway’s Beetlejuice). Yet, when that opportunity comes a knocking, or a ringing I should say, the future looks and sounds bright, like an electric guitar being played hard for Rolling Stone, filled with excited juvenile hope and the rush of hormonal desire. And like the movie, William’s dream is just the kinda stuff we can all gather behind and cheer for, mainly because we can see a little bit of our own self in that wide-eyed persona trying his best to be more mature, sound older, and radiate a stronger confidence than he has developed deep down inside that boyish charm.

Likes is, well, totally likable and endearing, exuding just the right amount of insecure fear and youthful determination that we can’t help but love and believe in his naive engagement with all that steps forward on this journey. “One day you’ll be cool,” he is told. But the musical chairs that are running rampant around him, courtesy of the wild unfocused direction by Jeremy Herrin (NT/West End’s People, Places, and Things) and the somewhat chaotic choreography of Sarah O’Gleby (Broadway’s upcoming Shucked), wanting desperately for us to see its unfocused delivery as something akin to bohemian and to Rock and Roll Joplin-style, but it comes off as sloppy and convoluted. The crew looks sorta great, thanks to costuming David Zinn (Broadway’s SpongeBob SquarePants), but sadly, the overall effect just makes the journey of this young man seem less intellectually compelling and far less emotionally engaging.

The Kitt-Crowe musical fails, not for a lack of trying and talent amassed. It’s not terrible, but it’s also not as great as it should be in the task of pulling us inside William’s fever dream, leaving us hanging outside like groupies, not band-aids, hoping to get in through the backstage door. The songs generally lack a memorable voice and sound, crashing themselves together with very little wit or charm. The band rocks out generic-sounding material, void of any of the beautiful lyric poetry we are holding our breath for, unless they are well-known musical moments inserted to drive forward the key emotional twists and turns on the road. I mean, how can you go wrong with David Bowie’s “It Ain’t Easy“, Joni Mitchell’s “River“, and Elton John’sTiny Dancer that exist within the show only to get us across the emotional finishing line? It’s a telling truth that they have to rely on classic and epic Bowie, Joni, and Elton to drive us to that emotional next stop on the Stillwater tour. The original music and lyrics don’t stand a chance when placed up against these three.

The songs do work some sort of magic on us, in a sad kinda way, giving us a surprising and connecting end to the journey, but up until that bittersweet point, I would have a hard time finding any depth or meaning in any of the bland lyrics or numbers that drive forward this talented cast, lead by the music supervision and direction of Bryan Perri (Broadway’s Jagged Little Pill). It’s a shame, as some of the talent onstage have the pipes and presence to deliver so much more had they had more unique or fresh material to inhale. One of the standouts is Solea Pfeiffer (Audible’s You Are Here) who organically finds the heart inside Penny Lane’s damaged soul. Her portrayal hangs true, as perfectly as that iconic coat on her band-aided frame. It’s the role that solidified and elevated Kate Hudson, from just being Goldie’s daughter to something akin to a movie star, and most likely, this performance will do the same for the talented Pfeiffer. Time will tell.

Chris Wood and Casey Likes in Broadway’s Almost Famous: The Musical. Photo by Matt Murphy.

With the solid partnership of Likes and Pfeiffer’s Lane, Crowe’s musical takes us along that bumpy tour road across America, unpacking the difficulty of staying true to self while being surrounded by all those hypnotic musical artists that we elevate to unnatural heights. That world rocks and rolls in such a charismatic way, pulling in innocents like William, and making it difficult, as he and we were warned about from the beginning; the plan and ideal to stay neutral. But in all honesty, the heart of this story resides in Penny Lane and her constructed and emotionally charged triangle with Likes’ wonderfully desperate William and Stillwater’s guitarist, Russell Hammond, smoothly portrayed by Chris Wood (Paper Mill’s Damn Yankees), the only member of the band that is actually intoxicating in any real manner. The three deliver a geometric connection that radiants, finding a way to pull us through all those numerous EXIT doors without ever losing us in the muddled process. It’s a bit overly busy for my liking, but the energy has a way of catching on. Yet, beyond that one “1973” opening number with those iconic covers, Almost Famous: The Musical remains steadfast in that stadium-filled realm of dulled-down film-to-musical-stage transfers that don’t have strong enough moves to give us any compelling reason to step out of our streaming Netflix world and enter into the Broadway theatre. Once again (yeah, I’m looking at you, Pretty Woman: The Musical), I’m sorry to say, I’d rather stay home. For every emotionally superior Band’s Visit, I guess there has to be a polar opposite, and this is that show, or at least one of a growing group of shows that pale in their comparison.

Amongst the lure and fun of those standardized stereotypical musical Rock and Roll artists and the year 1973, the rebellion of William and his sister makes perfect sense, and will probably sit well with those who already love this iconic film. But for those who just like or don’t really have a connection to Crowe’s film, all bets are off if they will find something to cheer about. The lackluster screen-to-stage new musical pushes forward without much for us to hold tight to and remember, and for a show that should be basking in nostalgia for a different time in musical history, when Rock stars reigned supreme, Almost Famous: The Musical plays off-key, paling in the harsh Broadway light of comparison. Save your dollars, and watch the film at home. You might miss some lovely performances, but this is just the launching pad for a few of these artists. More will come their way, and like the title, this musical will make them Almost Famous.

Casey Likes and Solea Pfeiffer in Broadway’s Almost Famous: The Musical. Photo by Matt Murphy.
Casey Likes (center) and the cast of Broadway’s Almost Famous: The Musical. Photo by Matt Murphy.

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