Writer-director Cameron Crowe’s Oscar-winning screenplay about a teen rock journalist’s coming-of-age in the ’70s, “Almost Famous,” lands pretty much intact in Broadway’s latest pedestrian film-to-stage adaptation. For those who love the 2000 semi-autobiographical film, this version provides almost a complete re-enactment of the original (via a book written by Crowe), with some new songs (by Tom Kitt and Crowe) mixed with a sizable set-list of tunes from the era.
It’s all entertaining enough — and no doubt a particular draw for the nostalgic baby-boomer-plus crowd — but there’s nothing extraordinary in the transformation to the stage. Not even almost.
Still, for those who missed this gem of a movie — and even for those fans who are fine with a by-the-number live version — there are pleasures to be found. After all, Crowe has fashioned a wonderfully observed story with colorful-yet-nuanced characters, authentic details and humor both sharp-eyed and low-hanging. (“If you think Mick Jagger will still be out there trying to be a rock star at age 50, you’re sadly, sadly mistaken,” pronounces one record company manager.)
It’s all set in a transitional time when the outlaw music and free spirits of the ’60s were being bridled, branded and repurposed for an all-consuming commercial industry. That loss of innocence is a theme that Crowe artfully incorporates into the arcs of his main characters, too, especially of precocious yet wide-eyed teen William Miller (an appealing Casey Likes), Crowe’s stand-in and a kind of rock-n-roll Pippin.
Drawn to the albums that his older sister Anita (Emily Schultheis) gives him, 15-year-old William is inspired to be a rock writer. He gets a gig first with Creem magazine then finds work with Rolling Stone, which allows him to step onto the tour bus of the mid-level rock band Stillwater for the ride of his life.
Just a phone call away throughout the peripatetic journey is William’s mentor, rock writer Lester Bangs (perfectly played with both exhausted cynicism and wild reverence by Rob Colletti), who warns the kid against making friends with the musicians he covers. “They make you feel cool and you are not cool,” says Bangs, who counsels the boy to be “honest and merciless.”
But William is soon drawn in by the spell of old-soul groupie — oops, “fan girl”— Penny Lane (Solea Pfeiffer), by the band’s charismatic lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Chris Wood) and by an all-access pass.
William’s enchantment with the liberated, communal, sexy and sexist world of rock and roll — and all the joys, adventures and aches that come with it — is the heart and soul of the film, and likewise here. But the dramatic beat remains in the constant conflict between home and music, dreams and reality, freedom and responsibility.
The musical works best when it steps away from the film for some personal moments, like William’s haunting “No Friends,” Penny’s wistful “Morocco” and Penny and Russell’s duet “The Nighttime Sky’s Got Nothing on You,” all hitting affecting notes of loneliness, longing and love.
Kitt and Crowe also fashion several effective numbers sung by William’s no-nonsense but supportive mother Elaine (Anika Larsen), a schoolteacher who frets from home. Here, she’s given variations of the film’s great monologues: One is a lecture to her class in which she memorably declares, “Rock stars have kidnapped my son,” and in another, she gives Russell a dose of parental terror over the phone. Larsen lands both moments beautifully, with just the right comic gravitas and heart.
But these skillful original songs only tell half the story. We never hear expressed — in a way that only musical theater can do — what this music means to these characters. Instead, at key dramatic moments we get renditions of the hits of the era, notably Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” as a kind of carpool karaoke, Joni Mitchell’s “River” and Yusef Islam’s (aka Cat Stevens) “The Wind.” But even in minor moments the musical forgoes original songs and turns to tunes from Nancy Wilson, Ron Davies, Stevie Wonder, Greg Allman, Jimmy Page and Robert Point, among others.
As Russell, Wood plays the Jackson Browne vibe to a fault, being so low-key he often fades away. As Penny Lane, Pfeifer is lovely and nicely navigates the rarefied air of rock bliss as well as her hard landing back into the real world.
Drew Gehling has fun — too much fun, actually — as lead singer Jeff Bebe, with a cartoony take that gets the laughs but robs the character of reality. And making an impressive debut here, Likes keeps the show’s, well, likability constant and his character true.
The workmanlike staging is by Jeremy Herrin (“Wolf Hall”) with busy, walk-about movement from choreographer Sarah O’Gleby. Derek McLane’s sets are fine and functional, looking all ready to tour, while David Zinn has fun with the period costumes. Kitt’s arrangements and orchestrations are spot-on, as is the music direction by Bryan Perri and sound design by Peter Hylenski, all making the world of Stillwater sound like the real deal.
But missed theatrical opportunities abound that could have further enhanced this stage version, especially in the rethinking of its female characters. It feels like lost opportunities that the show fails to make the other groupies more than generic, or to make Penny less of a male muse and more of a fully realized human, or to give us a musical connection between William and his sister.
One more thing the show misses: A respect that musical theater is an art form, too, and not just a commercial commodity — something Lester Bangs could relate to.
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