The company, photo by Matt Murphy.
by Ryan Leeds
The greatest mystery surrounding Almost Famous is how this complete mess of a musical played an out-of-town tryout at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater in 2019 and still managed to secure a Broadway house.
Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film of the same name follows an aspiring young journalist, his mentor, an overly protective mother, a rock group, and an ethereal soul named Penny. It was met with both critical and audience acclaim when it was released in cinemas in 2000. In addition to nods and awards from organizations and guilds, it earned four Academy Award nominations. Crowe took home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay — and it was well-deserved. The movie has everything the stage show lacks: humor, heart, wit, and earnestness.
Once again, Crowe is back in the writer’s seat, contributing book and lyrics for this stage adaptation. Perhaps that solves the mystery. With such close involvement, objectivity was lost. Neither Crowe nor Director Jeremy Herrin — or anyone from the creative team — were able to stand back and admit that this show simply doesn’t work.
Even the opening number — a tone setter for any musical — falls flat. Music critic Lester Bangs (Rob Colletti) stands center stage, delivering a brief monologue that declares rock and roll dead before the ensemble enters to sing the tepid song, “1973.”
Our protagonist, William Miller (Casey Likes), is travelling with the band Stillwater. They’ll all be on stage way too often to aurally assault the audience with overly loud songs and to remind us that this is, in fact, a story about a rock and roll band from 1973. Also, there will be a motorcycle and half of a plane onstage to ensure theatergoers that the top price they paid for a ticket was well worth the scenic gimmickry.
Essentially, if you’ve seen the movie, you’ve seen the show. Except the show is an impoverished imitation of its source material and feels interminably longer.
Tom Kitt assisted Crowe with humdrum lyrics and by himself, Kitt composed, orchestrated, and arranged the music. Kitt is by no means a small fry in the theater world. The two-time Tony award winner is best known for his score of the Pulitzer Prize winning musical Next to Normal. He has also arranged and orchestrated an impressive number of Broadway scores. This time around however, his original compositions fail to inspire or move the story forward in a manner that couldn’t otherwise be done through dialogue. In fact, the show’s most memorable song isn’t even an original one. Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Tiny Dancer” lethargically brings Act 1 to a close. In lieu of counting “headlights on the highway” you’ll count the number of minutes before curtain call.
Solea Pfeiffer is mesmerizing in her Broadway debut as Penny Lane. Vocally, she imbues each note with warmth and commands the stage with confidence and conviction. It’s no simple task given the material she’s been handed. Likes, who is also a Broadway first timer, radiates star power and will hopefully be moving on to better projects sooner than later.
While it’s truly thrilling to see new talent emerge onto a Broadway stage, it’s not enough to suffer through the raffs and riffs of Almost Famous: The Musical.
Almost Famous: The Musical
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
Open Ended Run
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater, food, and nightlife journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a contributor to EDGE Media Network, The Broadway Blog, Queerty, and LGBTQ Nation. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.