Theatre Review by James Wilson
Almost Famous Book and lyrics by Cameron Crowe. Based on the Paramount Pictures and Columbia Pictures Motion Picture by Cameron Crowe. Music and lyrics by Tom Kitt. Direction by Jeremy Herrin. Choreography by Sarah O'Gleby. Scenic and video design by Derek McLane. Costume design by David Zinn. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Hair, wig, and make-up design by Campbell Young Associates. Orchestrations and arrangements by Tom Kitt. Music supervision and direction by Bryan Perri.
In adapting the screenplay for the stage, Crowe has expanded the narrative frame to such a degree that the story, the characters, and the very heart of the piece get lost in the muddle. Adding to the muddle, songs composed for the show alternate and merge with rock classics from the period, thereby creating tonal confusion. And although set in 1973 (which is adroitly elicited by David Zinn's bell-bottomed costumes and the witty and spot-on wigs by Campbell Young Associates), the musical pulls the audience out by including a fair number of knowing winks to audiences of 2022. As a hard-driven manager warns the group about fickle fandom, for example, "One day, they'll figure out a way to get all your music, for free ... from a space ship in the sky." Additionally, the musicians are presented nearly to the point of parody, and this made me wonder if the creators might have had more success with another beloved behind-the-scenes rock film, This Is Spinal Tap.
For the uninitiated, Almost Famous is based on Crowe's experience as a young journalist writing about a touring rock group. William Miller (a very likable Casey Likes) is a fifteen-year-old high school student who sets out to write an in-depth article for Rolling Stone about a middling band called Stillwater. William's resolute mother Elaine (Anika Larsen, who does well with what she is given, which isn't much) reluctantly allows him to follow the group, providing he is home in time for graduation.
Tom Kitt's songs, with lyrics by Kitt and Crowe (Kitt also provided the orchestrations and arrangements), evoke 1970s rock music, but when compared with standards like Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" or Joni Mitchell's "River," they are instantly overshadowed. There are a couple of stand outs, including the plaintive "Morocco," sung by Penny, and "No Friends," sung by William with a folk-rock sound reminiscent of the Eagles.
There is some very good staging by director Jeremy Herrin and choreography by Sarah O'Gleby, particularly in the first act. The scene is in constant motion (assisted by the constantly shifting scenic and video design by Derek McLane and dazzling lighting by Natasha Katz), and this helps capture the frenzied lifestyle of which William longs to be a part. This non-stop action, however, soon tilts the musical into farce. When William accompanies Russell to a pool party with acid-spiked drinks, for instance, the scene resembles another starstruck-kid-in-show-biz film-turned-musical, My Favorite Year.
By the second act, the show drifts further and further into broad comedy, with a rather silly looking emergency plane landing, and the two main women characters are assigned to the peripheries. Elaine has an unfunny college classroom scene, and Penny sings "The Wind" (Cat Stevens's song) while skulking above the stage on a moveable bridge.
The most exciting part of the show is the curtain call. The principal cast members each have a chance to rock out and show their individual talents, which are considerable. It was at that moment I became aware of the adverbial qualifier in the show's title: Almost Famous is not nearly a great musical, but it is almost a very good one.