‘Almost Famous’ musical misses a few notes and doesn’t take enough risks

‘Almost Famous’ musical misses a few notes and doesn’t take enough risks

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By Dalton Ross November 03, 2022 at 09: 00 PM EDT

“It’s over.” That’s Lester Bangs uttering the first words of the new Almost Famous musical now playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York City. Or, rather, that’s actor Rob Colletti playing Lester Bangs. It’s rock & roll. Real rock & rolling. A genre Bangs declares already dead by the year 1973.

While watching this new stage adaptation of Cameron Crowe‘s 2000 coming-of-age-on-a-tour-bus film, I couldn’t help but wonder what the actual Bangs — the preeminent rock critic of his era obsessed with the anarchic lo-fi danger of the Stooges — would make of being a character in a splashy Broadway musical. He wouldn’t be a fan, it’s safe to assume. Bangs might wonder how a musical about the love and joy of music can be so flat when it comes down to the actual music.

Almost Famous Musical

Casey Likes and Rob Colletti in ‘Almost Famous’ on Broadway

| Credit: Matthew Murphy

That is the biggest flaw in an adaptation that faithfully follows the original source material… sometimes a little too faithfully, with entire sections of dialogue and almost every scene and plot point seemingly lifted directly from the original film. You end up wishing that a musical about the rebellious worlds of rock and roll would take more risks and let their hair down.

While the Broadway version of Almost Famous may not be full of surprises, it capably and dutifully retells Crowe’s semi-autobiographical tale of aspiring teen rock journalist William Miller (Casey Likes), who scores a job writing about a Led Zeppelin-esque rock outfit named Stillwater. William becomes friends with the band, which causes problems when he has to tell the truth about what he sees on the road. This road is where he travels with the group and the “Band-Aids”, including Penny Lane (Solea Peiffer).

Almost Famous Musical

The cast of ‘Almost Famous: The Musical’

| Credit: Matthew Murphy

Likes matches the eager and awkward dorkiness of the role originated by Patrick Fugit on screen, and Pfeiffer struts the stage and belts out tunes with the same vulnerability-masking confidence that Kate Hudson brought to her Oscar-nominated performance. The cast is buoyed by the fire-and-ice performances of Stillwater bandmates Drew Gehling and Chris Wood (guitarist Russell Hammond).

Gehling is the star of the show, playing to the back row with his preening, peacocking take on Bebe. Wood contrasts well, playing to front row with a more relaxed, easy-going charm, at least when she’s not going all Golden God. Anika Larsen is not given a lot to do in the first act as William’s uptight mom Elaine (originally played on screen to perfection by Frances McDormand), but is provided more (including her own number) in the second.

Almost Famous Musical

Drew Gehling in ‘Almost Famous’ on Broadway

| Credit: Neal Preston

The production’s often sparse set and staging succeeds in capturing the hectic on-tour vibe of the band, with equipment crates and doors seemingly always on the move. Meanwhile, the sea of bell-bottoms, retro tees, furry collars, and random scarves on display from costume designer David Zinn place the story well and are likely to inspire many a trip to the local vintage clothing store.

Unfortunately, the original songs — with music and lyrics by Tom Kitt as well as lyrics by Crowe, who also wrote the book — let the rest of the show down. “Something Real” is a notable exception. It translates Russell’s brilliant stupidity to song. Crowe, who also wrote the book, leans into the absurdity that a pampered rock star trying to convince himself that he is somehow above all the pomposity and stardom by pretending to being a man of people. It’s one the few times that the show actually laughs at itself.

Casey Likes and Solea Pfeiffer in ALMOST FAMOUS

Casey Likes and Solea Pfeiffer in ‘Almost Famous’ on Broadway

| Credit: Neal Preston

As for the rest of the original numbers, unfamiliar tunes are naturally going to struggle next to established songs from the film like Stillwater’s “Fever Dog” and Elton John‘s “Tiny Dancer” (as well as other well-known jams like Zeppelin’s “Ramble On,” T Rex’s “20th Century Boy,” and Stevie Wonder‘s “Higher Ground”). The vast majority of the new material, especially Penny Lane’s snoozy ode towards Morocco entitled… “Morocco”, fails to inspire. Or, even worse, rock.

At least until the end of the play. The curtain call, where each character belts out “Fever Dog” as their final line, is a great, spontaneous, and unexpected moment. It would have been great if the rest of the show did more of the same. B-

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