Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film in which a 15-year-old aspiring journalist cuts his teeth on the road with an up-and-coming rock band, is not an obvious choice for a Broadway musical despite being predominantly about music. Or, more accurately, about musicians and devotion – a charitable reading of the film, whose fans I’m not convinced overlap that much with musical theater, would say it pondered the ineffable qualities that make a star. The difference between a good band and a great one, a solid night onstage and magic, poser and cool.
Like just-good bands, the new Broadway version, adapted by Crowe with music and lyrics by Tom Kitt, has some of the right ingredients – overall convincing performances, kinetic choreography, the sheen of nostalgia, both for the 2000 film and 70s rock’n’roll. But the overall chemistry is lackluster, bound to elicit more shrugs than screams.
This is mostly due to flaws in the source material, to which Crowe’s stage adaptation stays faithful, and a fizzling indecision over its audience. Who is an Almost Famous musical for? Assumedly for fans of the movie, which is beloved by many though never a blockbuster, and for which the musical theater treatment adds little. It could be for older classic rock fans, the kind jamming along to hits like Elton John’s Tiny Dancer at the Bernard B Jacobs Theatre, though it’s not a rock musical. The majority of the show’s 2.5-hour runtime (including a 15-minute intermission) are indistinguishable musical theater numbers by Kitt, who won a Tony and Pulitzer for the score to Next to Normal. If it’s for fans of musical theater unfamiliar with the film, then … there’s not much to recommend. The classic rock covers (Deep Purple, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers) provide sugary adrenaline hits of recognition, while Kitt’s original music is melodically interesting though never memorable enough to stick.
Crowe has chosen, with middling results, to frontload said story with jokes and lean into the film’s occasional silliness; from the top, we learn 17-year-old William Miller (standout newcomer Casey Likes) is belittled at school and at home, on account of being actually 15, lack of pubic hair, and puritanical mother Elaine (Anika Larsen). A nerd at heart influenced by rebellious sister’s records, he precociously wins a reporting assignment from curmudgeonly, rock-is-dead critic Lester Bangs (Rob Colletti, the show’s most consistent comic relief) to profile Black Sabbath.
Buoyed by a high-minded crew of groupies called the Band-Aids, he instead ends up embedded with Stillwater, a small-town rock band about to break big and already simmering with tension between hammy lead singer Jeff Bebe (Drew Gehling) and swaggering, amenably conflicted lead guitarist/sex symbol Russell Hammond (Chris Wood, doing a spot-on and thus enjoyable impression of Billy Crudup as Russell Hammond). William hits the road as a wide-eyed friend/foe and a hapless, naive third to the love/sex triangle between Russell and Band-Aid leader Penny Lane (Solea Pfeiffer).
Director Jeremy Herrin and choreographer Sarah O’Gleby play this cacophony – the “circus,” as Russell calls it – with a sense of playfulness. The show’s physical dynamism – rock stars banging through floating doors, groupies in 70s costume (designed by David Zinn) swinging from scaffolding, live instruments, head-banging – is energizing if entirely within the realm of pastiche or tribute. It buoys the score’s lackluster lyrics and even blander characterization of Penny Lane, the icon if not the protagonist of the film.
Crowe makes some wise edits to the film story – gone is the scene in which lovestruck William kisses an unconscious Penny during her quaaludes overdose – but adding dimensions to Penny isn’t one of them. The show seems self-conscious of her status as a classic “manic pixie dream girl” trope – an effervescent, mercurial and inscrutable female character who exists to inspire male protagonists to appreciate life more. (The term was coined by critic Nathan Rabin to describe a space alien female character in another Crowe movie, Elizabethtown; Crowe has, in press for the show, pushed back on this characterization of Penny.)
Penny’s indefinability gets unconvincingly reframed here as a strength: she brings the best out of people, says one of the Band-Aids, makes “a hotel feel like a home”, says Russell in a song that’s supposed to add backstory to their romance but supplies little. Pfeiffer has a velvety voice and plays Penny as more bohemian romantic than Hudson’s fragile nymph, but her performance, and the show as a whole, struggles to overcome the fact that she’s difficult to root for, a cipher in service to others.
It is easy, in a show trying on half-baked ideas about authenticity versus inauthenticity (it’s musical theater!), to harp on the misfires, how it’s not hitting the way rock landed for Penny Lane. But Almost Famous never sinks below passing and is, at times, engrossing. Broadway newcomer Casey Likes demonstrates impressive stamina as William, his adolescent awkwardness more endearing and believable than it should be. Larsen is genuinely funny as his chagrined mother, understandably concerned about what tour life will do to her child. Still, solid performances alone do not justify a musical adaptation. It’s almost fun, silly, coherent, convincing, but not enough.