From the response of the audience’s standing ovation and cheering, the snarky comparison by critics to the lead actors of Almost Famous and Dear Evan Hansen and other criticisms didn’t seem to matter. That is because Almost Famous delivers. This is especially so if one has seen the titular film (2000). If you appreciate a nod to what Howard Stern refers to as the best music of the past (better than the 1960s), and take that love or fandom to The Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, you will be happy you went to see this enjoyable production of Almost Famous directed by Jeremy Herrin.
Written by Cameron Crowe (book and lyrics), and Tom Kitt (music and lyrics), based on the Paramount Pictures and Columbia Pictures film written by Cameron Crowe, the show spreads its uplift and hope during a holiday season that is bringing crowds to Manhattan. Tourists, rockers and Broadway fans up for an entertaining night out will be pleased at the sterling voices, the humor, the energy of the performers and the music which connects the familiar story-line to the historical 70s music scene with nostalgia and poignance.
The classic rock covers (i.e. Deep Purple, the Allman Brothers), sustain us while Kitt’s original music is interesting with memorable songs like “Morocco,” “The Night Sky’s Got Nothing on You,” and “Everybody’s Coming Together.” The new melodies (a combination of rock and pop), convey the heart of the characters who are subtly drawn.
Fandom is the key to frequent successful film to stage transference. It may or may not apply here. The creators have taken a leap into the Broadway musical genre. They’ve created original songs for live performance and they have slipped in songs from the period (Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Lynard Skinner, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and Elton John) into the musical’s action but not in the same way as in the film, whose background was replete with rock ‘n’ roll songs from start to finish. That doesn’t happen with this musical that has 18 newly-written songs. Included are four reprises from Tom Kitt (music) and Cameron Crowe (lyrics). The songs move the action as the characters express their conflicts, issues, desires and feelings and get tangled up in each others’ agendas.
Staged cleverly with Sarah O’Gleby’s movement, director Jeremy Herrin and the creative team eschew traditional choreography and keep the sets simple and minimalist to suit roadies on tour with the exception of William’s and Elaine’s home. This is in the service of suggesting the free form movement of the 1970s. The concept of great rock was fading into new musical trends like Rap then moved in the 1980s to MTV domination. Ultimately, the musical is a nod to 1970s rock ‘n’ roll and its ethos before commercialization and digital technology skewed it into something else.
Though the action is condensed with the added musical numbers, the arc of plot development, based on Crowe’s real-life journey as a teenage rock writer, follows the film. Wisely, the humorous lines in the production are lifted from Crowe’s writing, which won an Oscar for best original screenplay (2001).
One of the most important themes of the musical reveals an ambience of the 1970s, that was culturally strained between liberalism and conservatism. This is partly suggested by the opening number “1973,” when William Miller (the excellent Casey Likes), confesses to rock ‘n’ roll critic Lester Bangs (a manic, funny Rob Colletti). William sings about his conflicts with his mom. She stands in the way of his discovering “who he is.” In a state of flux, his mother Elaine (the humorous Anika Larsen), a teacher fearful of “drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll,”controls William and his sister Anita to the point where Anita (Emily Schultheis), rebels and leaves home.
However, Elaine can’t quite figure out who she is either. She adopts a healthy vegetarian/vegan lifestyle, clearly a liberal cultural influence. Yet, conservatively, she disagrees with subversive music (the rock ‘n’ roll Anita loves), and its cultural aftereffects (sex, drugs, wild partying). The pull of conservatism and liberalism is one William faces in his conflict with Elaine, but he’s leaning toward the underground and subversive, reinforced when his sister gives him all her rock ‘n’ roll albums to be “cool.” These inspire him to write for his school newspaper with the hope of a possible career as a writer or future music critic.
One element of his confusion, unbeknownst to him. is that his mother had him skip grades and lied about his age. Meanwhile, he is embarrassed because he has no pubes, is alone, uncool and alienated by classmates who humiliate him. Naturally, when he receives a response from Lester Bangs, the finest rock critic in Christendom, who accepts and encourages him, he jumps at the chance to write for Bangs’ Creem Magazine. On the road to being a bone fide critic, he lands an assignment from Rolling Stone to profile a rising band called Stillwater.
William manages to obtain Elaine’s permission by swearing he will remain pure and stay away from drugs and sex. Elaine relents because she dimly thinks it is better to connect with him and “keep him near,” (which fails), rather than lose him like she lost Anita. Ironically, she loses him in a different way. The rock band “kidnaps her son,” a funny and wonderful refrain in “Elaine’s Lecture” which is a lament that carries her angst about what is happening to William. He goes on the road with the band to get an interview, for which Ben Fong-Torres (Matthew C. Yee), will pay him handsomely. It’s an opportunity too good to pass up.
Likes’ William enjoys the excitement of “getting down” with beautiful young women who assist bands in their mission to be great. These groupies, cheering the praises of their leader Penny Lane (Solea Pfeiffer), have re-branded themselves as The Band-Aids. They are rock ‘n’ roll muses and their mission is “all about the music.” Indeed, Penny Lane has so fulfilled her role, that musicians have written 14 songs about her, and “all of them good,” affirms Estrella (Julia Cassandra).
With such a build-up of excitement Likes’ William is smitten with Penny (Solea Pfeiffer), and her Band-Aides who, along with Estrella, include Sapphire (Katie Ladner) and Polexia (Jana Djenne Jackson). Solea Pfeiffer is an “all that” Penny Lane who doesn’t quite convince us that she is about the music and so “cool” and scintillating to musicians, that she is their fount of inspiration. But then she is not supposed to. The Band-Aids, Penny and Stillwater’s Russel Hammond (Chris Wood), Jeff Bebe (wild, rocking Drew Gehling), Larry Fellows (Matt Bittner), and Silent Ed (Brandon Contreras) are “hype.” The actors (the Band-Aids and Stillwater), do a superb job of managing their characters’ “cool” with enough awkwardness for us to know that they are “almost famous,” but not there yet. And as a result, they will never really achieve super stardom because they get in each other’s way and are totally “uncool.”
The Band-Aides and Stillwater must walk the tightrope of not believing their own image to avoid falling into a destructive abyss which threatens throughout. This conflict and tension abates after the moment of truth on the airplane, especially when Woods’ Hammond and Gehling’s Jeff Bebe reveal their deepest secrets because they fear the plane will crash. This scene is technically delivered to surprising effect. Humorously, the tiny jet “flying” on a chord from one side of the stage to the other was so “over-the-top,” it worked in the service of farce.
The actors did a great job with the scene to convey just enough humor and fear to “spill the beans” and further wreck Stillwater’s “togetherness.” Believing their own hype brought them to facing this catastrophe on the plane. If they continued to take their humble tour bus, they would have been safer. The real dose of reality that Hammond says he wants is a pose only revealed when he thinks he’s going to die. Thanks to Derek McLane (scenic & video design), Natasha Katz (lighting design), Peter Hylenski (sound design), and the actors’ authenticity, the scene embodies their magical thinking vs. truth, a key conflict and theme of the musical.
Williams’ adventures initially captured in his journey through the songs, “Who Are You With?,” “Ramble On,” “Penny and William,” “Fever Dog,” and “Morocco,” evidence the pitfalls of being a rock ‘n’ roll critic who is always a “watcher” of the action, not a creator of it. Colletti’s Bangs humorously warns William to be “honest and unmerciful.” When William gets a taste of the band culture, its groupies and the challenge to be accepted, he tries not to be overwhelmed or lose his “objectivity.” Yet, he succumbs to their manipulations. First, there’s the rejection of him as a critic (called “The Enemy” by Stillwater’s Jeff Bebe). This wears him down and makes him want to “fit-in.” Though he resists and manipulates band members with flattery, he never adheres to Lester Bangs’s sage advice. Gradually, William is sucked in because Stillwater’s Bebe, Hammond and Penny Lane are good at “the game.” William is clever, but he’s a neophyte.
This “congenial” conflict between William, the band and Penny Lane disappears when he believes he is a friend, (“Something Real,” “No Friends,” the healing of divisions with “Tiny Dancer,” “Lost in New York City, Pt. 1” and “River/Lost in New York City Pt. 2”). But this “friendship” is a blind and his presumed love with Penny Lane eventually clarifies for him when she leaves him to the Band-Aids and joins Hammond (“It Ain’t Easy”). He is discouraged, but hangs on and writes a piece for Rolling Stone. However, it is rejected by fact-checker Allison (Emily Schultheis), and he is accused of writing a puff piece that Stillwater encouraged him to write. Only until Wood’s Hammond finally verifies William’s honest and “unmerciful” article to Rolling Stone, is the “magical fake world” of the band blown apart. However, this is beneficial for it allows the band and groupies to begin a new day.
Through lines in characterization are consistently effected. The conflict between son and mother abides from start to finish and provides much of the humor. Anika Larsen deftly balances Elaine as a typical loving parent, whose concern, knowledge and control are acceptable to the audience. She is never acerbic or preachy in the songs “He Knows Too Little (And I Know Too Much),” “Elaine’s Lecture,” and “Listen to Me.” Resolutions occur by the conclusion, when Anita has found herself and the full company sings the reprise of “Everybody’s Coming Together,” a rousing standout.
The actors, shepherded by Jeremy Herrin, do an excellent job of precluding who will end up on the floor of their own demise. This is strongest when we note the rifts between Bebe and Hammond, beginning when the T-shirts are distributed, then moving to the partial healing of their divisions on the bus with the singing of “Tiny Dancer,” another knockout scene and high-point at the conclusion of Act I. Though manager Dick Roswell (Gerard Canonico), has brought them together for a while, the conflicts among band members continue. They encompass Penny Lane and Russell’s relationship. Penny Lane is sold out in a bet that William witnesses during the Poker game scene. Pfeiffer’s Penny Lane and Likes’ William are excellent together with resonating lyricism and power when he saves her life after she overdoses on Quaaludes.
Most of the new songs work. Additional strong scenes/songs include Penny and William’s “The Real World,” Russell and Penny Lane’s “The Night-Time Sky’s Got Nothing on You” and “Something Real” when Woods’ Hammond falls apart at a fan’s house. At this point before the end of Act I, William attempts to keep Russell away from acid and fails. Woods and Likes do an excellent job revealing the negative pressure on their characters from the hype that Wood’s Hammond attempts to escape. It is an irony that he can’t because he is as needy and “uncool” as Penny Lane, Jeff Bebe and the others. However, he just hides it better.
Interestingly, in his immersion with the band, the only time they all come out of their “image” is when Likes’ blows it up with the final Rolling Stone piece about them, something that Wood’s Hammond encourages and has yearned for. Then, even Penny Lane is able to gain the strength to go to Morocco, leading to a satisfactory conclusion with “Fever Dog Bows,” which the entire company sings as a tribute to 1970s rock ‘n’ roll.
Kudos to the creative team already mentioned with special praise for Bryan Perri’s music supervision and direction, and Lorenzo Pisoni as physical movement coordinator. This is one to see for the shimmering performances, rousing music and nostalgia for a time we will never see again in its wacky innocence and silly “hedonism,” which seems quaint viewed through our current perspective. For tickets and times go to their website: https://almostfamousthemusical.com/