Thursday 22 December 2022

Almost Famous

 Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York

15th October, 2022 (Preview)

It’s over. All over

There’s been a string of screen-to-stage adaptations on Broadway in recent years. From indie films that have made it big on The Great White Way (The Band’s Visit, Waitress) to Hollywood favourites which hope to appeal to a broader tourist market (Beetlejuice, Moulin Rouge!). It’s now the turn of Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical movie Almost Famous (2000) to receive the Broadway treatment. The result is an entertaining and very watchable new musical which is let down by a feeling that it’s being constantly pulled in different directions.

It’s 1973 and rock critic Lester Bangs (Rob Colletti) has proclaimed Rock ‘n’ Roll is dead. Cynical of its commerciality, self-importance and lack of soul, it’s a bold statement from Rolling Stones magazine’s most influential writer. He then meets 15-year-old superfan William Miller: he’s learnt every riff, listened to every album, and memorised every guitar solo. Eager to please, he lies about his age and bags a task interviewing the band Stillwater (think Ozzy Osbourne-esque hair and British accents).  Miller’s naïve persistency gives him a backstage pass to follow Stillwater on tour. The life of a groupie – sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, or rather planes, veins and automobiles – provides Miller with a moment of exhilaration which quickly fades. Though the idea of ‘no attachments and no boundaries’ may sound worry-free it also leaves Miller directionless. The one rule he's given, ‘don’t make friends with the band’, is one he can’t resist and he soon finds himself falling for fellow groupie Penny Lane.

There’s a lot to enjoy in Almost Famous. Crowe’s book has a sense of drive which moves the story along with purpose. There’s also a clear sense of conflict between the teenager’s instinct to be unruly and his mother’s (Anika Larsen) inclination to be sensible which, although basic, is entertaining enough. There’s also a large cast of supporting characters who create some memorable moments, keen on selling a crowd-pleasing show for a wide Broadway audience, which they largely pull off. There’s a lot to enjoy about Derek McLane’s set design too from a lit-up map of the US which marks the band’s journey from state to state, to the more grounded setting of Miller’s home.

I agree with other critics that making the protagonist an on-looker is a flaw. Casey Likes as Miller has a great voice but it’s a shame we don’t get to hear it much. But the main issue with Almost Famous is that the score lacks any cohesion. Tom Kitt’s new songs are a hodgepodge of 70s rock pastiche for the band’s onstage numbers and more traditional musical theatre numbers which advance character. The best of these is ‘The Night Time Sky’s Got Nothing on You’, a duet between Penny Lane and band member Russell Hammond. Beautifully performed by Solea Pfeiffer and Chris Wood, the song gets to the core what the groupie and the rock star desire about the other’s lives: “The way you turn a hotel into a home… the way the notes you play make a play for my heart”. And for those audience members who haven’t seen the movie (like myself), jukebox numbers like the rousing Act One closing number (Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’) come as a pleasant surprise but don’t make much dramaturgical sense.

Jeremy Herrin’s production is busy. From our vantage point on the front row of the stalls, we could even see the organised chaos in the wings where stage managers’ tracks are choreographed down to a tee. Tables and chairs are hoisted into the rafters to be stored, and a stadium fire exit (part of the set) has to be used as an actual door for actors to reach the stage. The on-stage business is just as lively. From rock stars jumping from rooftops in slow-motion to tour bus singalongs and planes nose-diving in a storm. And in one fast-paced sequence, the cast crash through a series of moving doors as if to depict the nightly slog of navigating backstage corridors on an arena tour. If the effect of this is that, like all good road movies, the show is constantly moving, the downside is that it’s frenetic (although I’m sure this tightened up later in previews).

It’s a pity the show hasn’t found its audience as it’s just announced it’s due to close in January. But for rock fans and musical theatre fans, Almost Famous will provide a few hours of escapism over the festive period.

Almost Famous is playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York until 8th January, 2023.


Casey Likes and the cast of Almost Famous. Credit:  Krista Schlueter

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