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'Almost Famous' review — musical adaptation of hit film doesn't rock as hard

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

Cameron Crowe’s musical adaptation of his much-loved 22-year-old Oscar-winner, Almost Famous, gets off to a very promising start. So much so you silently hope Crowe (book and lyrics), Tom Kitt (music and lyrics), and director Jeremy Herrin can sustain the high level for the whole 2.5 hours. Long story short, no such luck.

Fortunately, the show is filled with fine performances and getup that takes us back a half-century without looking like a costume party. The energizing early vignettes come packed with rockers, groupies, backstage bustle, swirling doorways, blazing stage lights, flared jeans, macrame halter tops and crocheted hot pants. We know the time, the place, who’s who, and what’s at stake.

In California circa 1973, socially awkward 15-year-old William Miller (Casey Likes) is aching to be seen and heard. He plans to make that happen, like Crowe did, as a music journalist. He lands an assignment for Rolling Stone to cover Stillwater, an up-and-coming group behind the scratchy hit “Fever Dog.” Guitarist Russell Hammond (Chris Wood) has the skills, voice, mystique, and long hair (parted down the middle) of a star.

William’s rigid widowed mom (Anika Larsen, channeling Frances McDormand from the film) reluctantly gives him the green light to go. William quickly discovers onstage rock gods are just self-serving neurotics behind the scenes.

Up to this point, the focus is squarely on William, who does everything he can to make his dream happen. He pesters the esteemed rock critic Lester Bangs (Rob Colletti). He charms Russell and frontman Jeff Bebe (Drew Gehling, game for anything). He befriends Penny Lane (an iridescent Solea Pfeiffer, in the role made famous by Kate Hudson), who favors the term “band aid” to "groupie" and recklessly prefers Russell over everyone else.

William stays busy. And then… he turns passive. He becomes just another person in the room, the one with the tape recorder. Things that happen between Russell and Penny and within Stillwater have nothing to do with William. Without a strong focus, the story falls slack and meanders.

Even when it’s blurry, Almost Famous has smart things to say about the power of music, weirdness of celebrity, force of family, and bittersweetness of life. It’s also a love story – a few of them. There’s William and Penny, Penny and Russell, and, more subtly, Crowe and pop legend Joni Mitchell. He’s seen to it that she looms large in the show. A tiny fragment of her achy ballad, “River,” plays in the background onscreen. The musical turns it into a lyrical point of connection. “Call me if you ever need a rescue, or a river to skate away on,” Penny tells William. “‘River.’ Joni Mitchell,” he responds. Later in the show it becomes their dramatic duet.

Showcasing the song and its peerless poetry on stage is a bold move. The same goes for Elton John’s irresistible “Tiny Dancer,” which the Stillwater band members sing in the movie and show as they mend fences. Music heals. They’re great songs, of course, and that cuts two ways.

New songs by Crowe and Kitt (Next to Normal) are easy on the ears but don’t quite rise as high. “1973,” which begins as a solo for Likes and builds into a rousing group number, is a lively show opener. “Morocco,” sung beautifully by Pfeiffer, expresses Penny’s desires and, like the character, is pretty but vague. “The Night-Time Sky’s Got Nothing on You,” a duet between Russell and Penny, is a vocal highlight.

In the end Almost Famous is a mid-level musical that lives up to its title. Like groupies trailing after rock stars, it chases but never captures the quirky luster of the cinematic source.

Almost Famous is at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Get Almost Famous tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Casey Likes and the cast of Almost Famous on Broadway. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

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