If you don’t like Almost Famous*...well, what are you doing here? Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical romp through his teenage start as a Rolling Stone reporter is just about the quintessential Popdose movie, with its free-spirited celebration (and trenchant critique) of the early Seventies rock scene milieu and dialed-in appearances by critic and guru Lester Bangs. (Plus, “Band-Aids,” a staple of the Popdose life, umm, not.)
Almost Famous lived up to its title–Crowe’s screenplay was a deserved Oscar winner in 2001 but the movie was a boxoffice disappointment and while beloved by viewers who came of age around the same time as lead William Miller did it’s never had the cult cachet of, say, This is Spinal Tap (1984). (I’m not aware of Billy Crudup and Jason Lee getting Stillwater back together again for Grammy, Coachella, or charity jams.) But the immutable law of commercial theatre demands that every movie with some sort of rock or performance element become a stage musical (The Full Monty, Kinky Boots, High Fidelity, etc.) and so three years after Almost Famous (The Musical, natch) bowed in Miller/Crowe’s hometown of San Diego Stillwater has made it to Broadway, opening tonight at the Jacobs, with Crowe supplying the book and some lyrics.
There’s good and not-so-good news in that. Crowe naturally plays the hits (“Don’t do drugs!”, “I am a golden god!” and most of Bangs’ memorable monologues into the phone are heard); the bad is that it’s doggedly faithful to the source, sapping the show of its own vitality. He’s updated some of the references and removed the punchline to the plane episode, which lands differently than it did in 2000, and the casting is more diverse. But too often it’s a Westworld version of itself, staffed with androids. There’s nothing wrong with Chris Wood (who I know from Supergirl) as the enigmatic Russell Hammond, Solea Pfeiffer as the enchanting Penny Lane, or Tony nominee Anika Larsen (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) as William’s sharp-tongued mother Elaine, but they’ll all been coiffed and costumed to look as much as possible like Billy Crudup and Oscar nominees Kate Hudson and Frances McDormand.
Consequently the battles for William’s heart and soul as he blossoms from “uncool” high schooler to the cover of Rolling Stone are on autotune, the eight-shows-a-week version of what was fresh, funny, and truthful back then. The three get some of the better songs, from multi-lauded Tom Kitt (who, showing never-say-die spirit, wrote the music for the High Fidelity tuner, a flop in 2006)–Pfeiffer’s “Morocco,” Penny’s “I want” song, is plaintive and tender; her duet with Wood, on “The Night-Time Sky’s Got Nothing on You,” generates some sparks; and Larsen brings down the house with the amusing “Elaine’s Lecture,” her number at the lectern as she laments William’s leaving home. Cuter and more emo than Patrick Fugit in the film the appealing Casey Likes has more rapport with Rob Colletti’s God Bangs (bringing a different energy to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s indelible portrayal) and most of their communication is across the stage via old-school phones.
Director Jeremy Herrin’s shapeless staging of the road-tripping episodes, on a grungy Derek McLane set temporarily enlivened by some of his video design (such as Central Park blooming from winter to spring), is another impediment to bringing Almost Famous from screen to stage. The main problem, however, is that Crowe’s dialogue sings and dances in the movie; there’s nothing that song and perfunctory dance can bring to it. Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” bundles several strands of the film together, and harmonizes them; the cast performance of this golden oldie as the Act I closer just upstages what’s come before. As too often happens there’s now a musical of Almost Famous but why there’s now a musical of Almost Famous, one that might do something innovative rather than dutiful with the material, is never clear. To paraphrase a title from one of Crowe’s favorite bands the song remains the same…but it’s off-key.