The show starts by acknowledging “it’s over,” as Lester Bangs (played by Rob Colletti) shouts across the stage. In the world of the musical Almost Famous, it’s 1973, and rock and roll is already being wrecked by commercialization and self-aggrandizement. “They took the mud and the guts out of rock and roll,” he proclaims like the Cicero of FM radio, though “maybe I’m the only one who still thinks great music will find you.” It’s a sentiment that felt true then, felt even more true in 2000 when the film Almost Famous came out, and now, after another two decades, feels quaint. You’re about to see something encased in layers of nostalgic amber. Rock is deader than dead, and it’s on Broadway — and I say this lovingly — the least cool stage of all.
It’s wise for Cameron Crowe, who won an Oscar for the film’s screenplay and came back to write the book for this musical, to head things off like this at the get-go. What you’re seeing here, he’s all but admitting, is a memory of a memory. Onscreen, Crowe’s own experiences writing for Rolling Stone as a precocious teenager in the 1970s are set around a fictionalized version of himself following the fictional mediocre roots-rock band Stillwater on their national tour. Around that, there are the attempts to remind the audience of their own fondness for that film, which has a huge following — when I mentioned I was seeing the musical, one of my friends told me the movie was her “entire personality when I was 14.” To that end, the musical scrupulously duplicates the movie, delivering nearly every famous line of dialogue right where you expect it, whether shouted (“Don’t take drugs!”), sung (“It’s all happening”), or yelled out in the middle of a song (“I am a golden god!”). It so desperately wants to remind you of something else you might’ve loved that the presiding emotional affect ends up being melancholy. We’ve missed the tour bus twice over. This is almost Almost Famous.
Telling a story about music onstage does mean you can get talented professionals to sing it. The rock classics that appear here include Joni Mitchell’s “River” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” — but, of course, sans Joni Mitchell in favor of Solea Pfeiffer and Casey Likes and without Skynyrd but with Chris Wood and Drew Gehling. (As with Moulin Rouge!, you feel that the IP lawyers who negotiated the rights deals should be allowed to take bows with the cast.) The big Act One finale, perhaps predictably, is the scene in which everyone starts to sing “Tiny Dancer” on the tour bus, and though people didn’t actually start singing along in the audience when I saw it, it felt plausible they might. Over the final bows, everyone screams a bit of “Fever Dog,” the song Crowe and his ex-wife, Nancy Wilson, wrote as Stillwater’s signature hit.
Then there are the new songs, written by Tom Kitt, who also did the orchestrations for this show and has lately specialized in Broadway-ified rock (he worked on Jagged Little Pill and American Idiot), with Crowe as co-lyricist. The new songs are, well, fine — anything probably sounds like second-drawer material next to “Tiny Dancer” — and sit in awkward tension against jukebox classics. The oldies, being so familiar to the ear, make the new songs sound inferior; the newer work, which better describes the emotional headspace of the characters, leaves less of an immediate impression. The best of the new songs is a wistful tune for Penny Lane called “Morocco” about her dreams of leaving it all behind. It sounds a bit like Mitchell but was inspired more directly by “Barcelona” from Company. Turns out using something originally written for the stage as a model is a good idea.
Pfeiffer has no trouble with that song. She can reach way into her upper register with stores of vocal power (which she also deployed, imperially, in Evita at New York City Center a few years ago). She’s got perhaps the hardest job among the cast in playing Penny Lane. As the “Band-Aid” who is definitely not a groupie, Kate Hudson did the impossible thing of seeming at once wise and mysterious and hopelessly lost, becoming a wayward twin to Crowe’s author-avatar, William Miller (Casey Likes onstage, doing Patrick Fugit’s aw-shucks style pretty well). Pfeiffer, who is quite tall, pulls Penny toward something more magisterial, and you don’t worry about her in the same way. When it comes to Penny, Crowe falls into a common trap of movie-to-musical adaptations: He tries to fix problematic treatment of a character by flattening her. The musical thankfully jettisons the moment when William kisses her after she overdoses, and no one sings “My Cherie Amour” as her stomach is pumped. It also eliminates the exchange that implies Penny is underage, or at least not much older than William, and adds some more scenes behind closed doors in which she and guitarist Russell Hammond (Chris Wood) drearily argue about their affair and his wife. When Penny is less naïve, Hammond’s cruelty doesn’t hit as strongly, and it’s harder to grasp what she sees in William. It’s a little too tidy, as if everything were aboveboard in the world of rock.
Like Pfeiffer, the other actors have to tread around deeply familiar territory. Anika Larsen goes for something a little softer to avoid redoing Frances McDormand’s harsh deadpan. Wood is more direct than Billy Crudup’s devilish version of Hammond. Drew Gehling, taking on Jason Lee’s role of dopey front man Jeff Bebe, exaggerates his stupidity to the point of absurdity. Directing them, Jeremy Herrin (of Wolf Hall and Noises Off) nudges everyone toward a broader, sitcomlike delivery, and the audience, familiar with most of the punch lines already, seems to want it that way. Derek McLane’s set is bounded by rock-arena scaffolding and a large video screen at the back of the stage that evokes life on the road in America. It also evokes the screen used in the movie-to-stage Anastasia and Mean Girls. Please, set designers, free us from the big TV!
“Don’t make friends with the rock stars” is Lester Bangs’s advice to William, and it’s wisdom that Almost Famous, the musical, could have used, too. The core of Crowe’s script holds: There’s so much to mine in William coming of age through rock music and through the act of learning what it means to be “the enemy” as a journalist among your subjects. (Maybe that lesson isn’t universal, but if you’ve ever had to negotiate the experience of trying to get someone to like you just enough to tell you something they don’t want to, it hits hard.) This Almost Famous gives you all that and the music — but it also wants to be everyone’s friend, cozy and familiar. There’s no mud and guts to be found here.
Almost Famous is at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.