“You are dealing with a virulent strain of pud-pulling mediocrity here,” the famed rock journalist Lester Bangs (an amusing if slightly overwrought Rob Colletti) screams to his 15-year-old protégé William Miller (the appealing Casey Likes) early on in “Almost Famous: The Musical,” the long-simmering musical adaptation of Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical film, now at Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. And while the target of Bangs’ tirade is the fictional 1973 band Stillwater, his statement sadly turns out to be a perfect summation of this disappointing theatrical enterprise, which fails to capture almost any of the magic of Crowe’s 1990 movie.
Director Jeremy Herrin, best known for his work with grand epics like “Wolf Hall” and Shakespearean dramas, is out of his league here; too many scenes are just a muddle of movement with no center – helped none by Sarah O’Gleby’s almost amateurish choreography. Most shocking of all, the production even defeats the great set designer Derek McLane, who fills a butt-ugly steel cage with cheap-looking furniture and cardboard cutouts, and resorts to giant maps or huge photos to give us a sense of place.
Still, the filmmaker, who wrote the musical’s book and lyrics, is primarily to blame. Not only is the script too cinematic in nature to work well on stage, but Crowe also simply fails to understand that great theater is about story, not atmosphere (which was the film’s strongest suit). What we should getting is a deeply moving coming-of-age story more firmly focused on William’s hard-earned life lessons about the dangers of meeting your heroes (even if one turns out to be nice in the end), the actual rigors of professional journalism, and the pain of young love.
All the elements are there, to be sure, but they get buried as Crowe’s script moves too fleetly from subplot to subplot. Way too much time is wasted on the infighting of Stillwater, caused by the friction between its charismatic lead guitarist Russell Hammond (a somewhat underwhelming Chris Wood) and its resentful lead singer, Jeff Beebe (Drew Gehling in an oddly caricatured turn). It all feels like a retread of countless episodes of VH1 “Behind the Music” series.
Somewhat more successful is the relationship between William and Penny Lane (the extraordinary Solea Pfeiffer in a long-overdue Broadway debut), the glamorous, mysterious leader of the “Band Aids,” a group of women who travel with (and sleep with) Stillwater. Penny is truly in love with the married Russell, who returns her affections but still manages to treat her terribly. Yet, she has an undeniable fondness for the younger, more innocent William that is both touching and painful to observe. The strong-voiced Pfeiffer effortlessly commands every scene she’s in, making you often wish the musical was about Penny, not William.
Its book issues aside, the most frustrating aspect of “Almost Famous” is the music. Let’s be real: In an era of juke-box musicals, no show more deserved to be a member of that genre than this show. And if you didn’t feel that way going in, you will when you leave humming Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” sung in full towards the end of Act I, or Joni Mitchell’s haunting “River,” Led Zeppelin’s rockin’ “Ramble On,” or even Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” all of which are heard in snippets.
Admittedly, few songs can compare to these classics, but Tom Kitt’s soft-rock-meets Broadway score (featuring Crowe’s forgettable lyrics) is a poor substitute, although a couple of tunes (“The Night-Time Sky’s Got Nothing on You” and “Morocco”) probably bear repeated listening. There are also way too many numbers; for example, there’s no good reason that William’s dour mother, Elaine (Anika Larsen, channeling Laurie Metcalf rather than her cinematic predecessor, Frances McDormand) deserves two songs in the second act.
There may be people for whom “Almost Famous” almost satisfies, such as rabid fans of the movie, but (especially at today’s ticket prices), almost isn’t really good enough.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Chris Wood, Tony Award® nominee Anika Larsen, Solea Pfeiffer, Drew Gehling, Rob Colletti, Casey Likes. The company will also include Matt Bittner, Chad Burris, Gerard Canonico, Julia Cassandra, Brandon Contreras, Jakeim Hart, Van Hughes, Jana Djenne Jackson, Claire Kwon, Katie Ladner, Danny Lindgren, Erica Mansfield, Alisa Melendez, Kevin Trinio Perdido, Andrew Poston, Emily Schultheis, Daniel Sovich, Libby Winters, and Matthew C. Yee.
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036