People love this film. As do I, although maybe not as much as some of the mega-fans that surrounded me the night I went to see Almost Famous: The Musical which made its Broadway debut at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre last week. The new musical, with music and lyrics by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) and book and lyrics by Cameron Crowe, the man who wrote and directed the 2000 film that this show is based, tries its solid best to pull us into the intoxicating glitter world of those 1973 Rock and Roll days and have us run with it. Which, it seems, if you want to listen to the legendary critic Lester Bangs, dynamically portrayed in this musical stage adaptation by Rob Colletti (Chicago’s The Book of Mormon) who phones in a lot of funny quips from the sidelines, believes that the art of music is dangerously teetering on the verge of spiritual collapse. All due to corporate consumption and mainstream acceptance, and he ain’t kidding. “It’s over,” he says with wild dismay, as only a jaded music critic can, and if this musical is any indication of its status on Broadway, he might be right, unfortunately.
Based on Crowe’s personal experience as a music writer, the stage musical follows, like the film, a rock band, the generic-sounding Stillwater, through the landscape of music and the country, finding himself along the way. Fronted by lead singer Jeff Bebe, and played to the max by Drew Gehling (Broadway’s Waitress), the band rocks and rolls over on tour, infighting like every great band we know, all while being watched and notated by a young Crowe-inspired soul falling hard for those bandmate feelings. The story has a solid base material, one that should have made it easy to rock and roll a stage musical out hard and strong, and it’s sorta strange that it doesn’t. There is little in the sound and feeling that equates to the originality or drive of the source material, sadly, and that’s the most disappointing bit. There is so much possibility there, especially because, like the movie, the emotional spotlight is on a young endearing eighteen, no, sixteen, no, actually fifteen-year-old boy, William Miller, played enthusiastically by Casey Likes (MGM’s “Dark Harvest“), who sits in a suburban home with his overprotective mother and rebellious sister, listening to all the great bands of the time and dreaming of getting out and making it big in the music industry as a writer for a magazine like Rolling Stone. And like the movie, we embrace that dream, wanting to cheer him on for his leaving that life behind, and arriving at his dream, even if he doesn’t have the pass he needs to get there. And we do, throughout this staged musical, but not because of the musical itself.