Friday, November 11, 2022

Almost Famous (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This musical adaptation of Cameron Crowe's 2000 semi-autobiographical film is slavishly faithful to its source, an approach I rate as a plus. To have gone a different route would have disappointed the Oscar-winning film’s many fans. (The film won Best Original Screenplay.)

Now truthfully, he film itself, which I watched just a couple of days earlier, doesn't exactly cry out for musicalization despite its rock world milieu. But composer-lyricist Tom Kitt, in tandem with Crowe himself, have come up with some quite decent numbers that nearly all take their cues from the film's dialogue, which is presented here with nearly line-by-line fidelity. In short, book writer Crowe has done everything possible to put his beloved film on stage.

For those who need reminding, the story tells of 15-year-old William Miller (the fictional stand-in for young Crowe played here by Casey Likes) who, like Crowe himself, aspires to be a rock music writer, for Rolling Stone. William’s mother Elaine (Anika Larsen), a college professor, disdains that goal but nonetheless warily and lovingly indulges his efforts. 

She allows him to travel with the (fictional) Stillwater band fronted by Jeff Bebe (Drew Gehling) to write a piece for Rolling Stone’s editor Ben Fong-Torres (Matthew C. Lee) who has no idea how young William really is as they've only spoken over the phone. And, of course, the projected four days William tells his mother he'll be away turns out considerably longer.

He's taken in caring hand by a groupie not much older than he is named Penny Lane (Solea Pfeiffer) who is smitten with the handsome guitarist for the group, Russell Hammond (Chris Wood). Penny’s pack of fellow fans include Estrella (Julia Cassandra), Sapphire (Katie Ladner) and Polexia (Jana Djenne Jackson), all well played here.

William’s mentor, seasoned rock critic Lester Bangs (Rob Colletti taking Philip Seymour Hoffman’s film role), warns the boy not to become friends with the band as they will use him to glorify their image, and of course that is exactly what begins to happen.

All the casting seems to have been done along with the film’s cast in mind. Without resorting to imitation, Likes, Larsen, Wood, Pfeiffer, and Gehling manage to channel Patrick Fugit, Frances McDormand, Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, and Jason Lee. 

They're all good, and Pfeiffer in particular is remarkably successful at recreating Hudson’s charismatic luminosity in the film. She also has some of the prettiest numbers here such as “Morocco,” her paean to her pipe dream destination; and “The Night-Time Sky’s Got Nothing on You” (a duet with Wood). 

This being a musical, young William has his share of songs, too, which at first seems a bit odd as his character is written as the wide-eyed observer. But Likes is a strong vocalist, and it would have been disconcerting for him not to sing.

The score is a mix of newly written songs by Kitt and Crowe and a handful of others heard in the film.

Director Jeremy Herrin is, on the whole, successful at creating a cinematic fluidity (even including the film’s bus and plane scenes), and scenic and video designer Derek McLane’s set pieces come in from the wings and the flies at various times for scene changes. David Zinn’s costumes entertainingly capture the 1970s ethos.

A few of the band’s numbers are played at rock concert decibels, but the dialogue and book songs otherwise play out at comfortable levels in Peter Hylenski’s crisp sound design

The show does seem a tad long but I'd be hard pressed to know what cut without losing one of the key scenes from the film.

The audience at my performance seemed to have a rousing good time, which must have been gratifying for Cameron Crowe who watched the show from the back of the house.

(Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street; or 800-447-7400)

Photo by Matt Murphy: (l.-r.) Casey Likes, Solea Pfeiffer

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