The layers upon layers of metatextual implications over a critic reviewing a play based on a movie where a critic writes about a band are certainly not lost on this writer. In fact, it is this aspect specifically that helped draw me to my seat at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, where Almost Famous: The Musical opened in November. There is a fine line between fan and critic, and the fabulous writing from Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical story explores this angle through an unfiltered lens. Through the eyes of a budding young writer for Rolling Stone, we travel across the country as he learns about life, drugs, and rock ’n roll. Who wouldn’t want to follow a career path that gives them access to interview a major band, and to hang out regularly with rock stars? The answers are more complex than one would expect; each musical number serves to burrow the audience deeper into the headspace of our core cast of characters. Get ready to scream “I am a golden god” from the rooftops as we take it to the road for Stillwater’s headlining tour…
2000’s Almost Famous is considered by many to be a modern film classic, and for good reason. However, it wasn’t until I planned to see the stage show that I went back and watched the original in full for the very first time. For once, an adaptation is able to bottle all of a film’s magic and remain lavishly faithful to its script, while still injecting heart and humor of its very own flavor. This is a rare feat—even recent shows I have adored such as Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Beetlejuice have taken some pretty drastic sidesteps from their source material. What was most surprising to me about Almost Famous: The Musical is that it still manages to keep the same sense of scope and magic in exploring its love of rock ’n roll. Almost Famous is bound for comparisons to fellow musical Rock of Ages, but feels considerably less hollow and commercialized than its predecessor. This show is fully immersive in its era, whilst Rock of Ages presents as an artificial time capsule recreation.
For those familiar with the movie of the same name, Almost Famous: The Musical will hit many nearly-identical notes. Yet, there is something so magical about seeing it played out before the audience on the Broadway stage. Roll back the clocks to 1973, a year viewed as groundbreaking for the rock n’ roll genre, but legendary critic Lester Bangs (Late Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film, Rob Colletti in the musical) thinks they are currently experiencing the genre’s “death rattle.” Lester acts as protege to curly-haired fifteen-year-old William (Patrick Fugit in the movie, here played by jaw-dropping newcomer Casey Likes). After assigning young William a piece on Black Sabbath for Creem Magazine, Lester sends William on his way to the venue wherein his life will be forever changed. Likes is a vocal powerhouse, showcasing impressive range in ensemble numbers and intimate duets like “Morocco.” Colletti is also good, but plays easily the most annoying character.
William’s efforts to get in backstage for his interview catch the attention of “goddess” Penny Lane (Oscar-nominated Kate Hudson in the film, a tender and soulful Solea Pfeiffer here) and her “Band-Aids.” While William initially views them as strictly groupies, Penny and her female friends are far more than that label would suggest, serving as muses without boundaries or attachments. When Penny cannot get him in, the up-and-coming band Stillwater is sure to swoop to his rescue. Jeff (Drew Gehling) may be the leader, but it is Russell (tousle-haired and mustachioed Chris Wood, once played by Billy Crudup in the movie) who makes the biggest impression on the viewer and the band’s fanbase. Cool and collected, Russell easily grants William access, both to the band at large, and to the backstage opportunities of William’s wildest dreams.
What started as a potential profile for Creem Magazine quickly evolves into the opportunity of a lifetime, as William becomes swept away in the lifestyle in spite of his concerned mother. Frances McDormand once filled the woman’s shoes, and now Anika Larsen stands in convinced that “rock stars have kidnapped my son” in Act II’s “Elaine’s Lecture.” Elaine is a great supporting character, one who clearly has love for her son and is sure to warn him about drugs every chance she has. Her paranoia however seems to know no bounds. She claims that Simon & Garfunkel are also “on pot.” The longer William is away on the road, the more worried Elaine remains as graduation looms large. Rolling Stone eventually calls William about making an article on Stillwater—is it quite literally his dreams becoming reality.
William may be our lead character, but complicated Russell and his mistress, Penny, are vital parts of Almost Famous. Some of my favorite elements are when the stage metamorphoses into a full-blown concert with drums, big vocals, and contagious guitar riffs. As Stillwater, this band format presents an unstoppable energy. “Fever Dog,” lifted directly from the film, establishes Stillwater as a force to be reckoned with very early on. Chris Wood tosses guitar picks out into the crowd to cheers, and an indescribable rock-star vibe fills the air. Penny’s story has touches of tragedy in it, as she is drawn to Russell in spite of his complicated relationship to an “ex-ex wife.” The duo is just as complicated as they were on film, sharing my favorite song of the show: “The Night-Time Sky’s Got Nothing on You.”
Staging is vibrant and energetic, favoring movie-style framing of its setups such as a massive changing digital screen onstage that helps depict everything from a road map of the United States that follows Stillwater’s tour to mountainous backgrounds and more. Neon-lit signage and rotating doorways inject color and varied delights when necessary. Songs are suitably genuine 70s in style—though Almost Famous does indeed sample some greats, it is far from being a jukebox musical. This says a lot when the tunes can still stand alone without feeling like generic retreads. For those waiting to jam out to them on repeat, they will sadly have to wait just a bit longer. The cast recording will be available for digital purchases, streaming, CD, and vinyl on Friday, March 17th, while a few select singles from the show are already out now.
Almost Famous: The Musical ends in a big jam session, and I honestly can not picture a more satisfying route to close out this rapturous experience. In a way, reviewing this show meant big things for me, signifying a bold new road ahead. This is the first Broadway show I have ever reviewed—there is no doubt in my mind that it will open the doors to many more to follow, and help expand my love of music and the theatre even further than I already have. Journalism does not exist in quite the same way William experiences here anymore—sadly, print is a dying breed. And yet, I cannot help but yearn for the success and trajectory that he singularly experiences. I may not be destined for Rolling Stone, but Almost Famous: The Musical helped remind me why I love doing this so much in the first place. In the infamous words of Russell Hammond, “write what you want.”
Almost Famous: The Musical is now playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. For ticketing information, head over to the show’s official website.