Some movies are great as much for the environments they create as the stories they tell. One such title that comes to mind is “Sweet Smell of Success.” Its black-and-white Times Square cityscape made it lush and engrossing on film – but was cause for a particularly challenging stage adaptation. “Success” failed in its transfer as a Broadway musical ultimately because, in addition to having a weak score and book, its director never found a theatrical equivalent for the movie’s hard-edge chiaroscuro gaze of Manhattan night life in the 1950s.
The 2000 movie “Almost Famous” may be comparatively less atmospheric than “Sweet Smell of Success,” but it does create a vivid mosh pit of rigid egos and drug-induced hedonism that no 15-year-old boy should ever have to navigate.
For those who don’t read Rolling Stone, Cameron Crowe wrote and directed the movie “Almost Famous,” and it is his semiautobiographical account of how he became the youngest and most unlikely reporter for that rock ‘n’ roll bible. Now, Crowe is telling his story again, this time as book writer and co-lyricist of a Broadway musical that attempts to recycle “Dear Evan Hansen,” replacing the arm cast with a tape recorder. The new musical “Almost Famous” opened Thursday at Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
Here, the young Crowe is again named William Miller (Casey Likes), but unlike the movie, his entire family has been turned into one big Broadway trope: The sister (Emily Schultheis) is mildly rebellious, and the mother (Anika Larsen) is harried and single (of course). Upset by the death of his father, the young hero of “Almost Famous” frets even more about his having no pubic hair at age 15. It’s the least of what he’s missing down there.
As played by Likes, this nervous teenager wouldn’t make it past his first question to a rocker zonked out on a cocktail of Quaaludes and acid in the groupie-infested backstage world of rock stadiums. Likes imitates Tony winner Ben Platt’s Evan Hansen, matching his every anxious twitch to communicate a lack of suitability for a career in rock journalism circa 1973. “Almost Famous” pretends to say something about fame – it’s empty, it saps the soul – but what Crowe and Likes fail to tell us is anything about the naked ambition and drive that must have pushed an extraordinary 15-year-old into writing a cover story for Rolling Stone.
Instead of that person, William Miller emerges as a totally incompetent reporter who lucks into writing a story about the then-up-and-coming ‘70s Southern rock band Stillwater, and along the way finds himself to be the only adult in the hotel room. He is repeatedly so responsible that he’s not just the wettest hoodie at the party – he is your parent at that party.
There’s no suspense in this musical because there’s no conflict. In addition to encouraging Likes to indulge in every Brandon deWilde mannerism not already lifted by Platt, director Jeremy Herrin has assembled the least dangerous group of rockers this side of a community theater production of “Grease.” The Stillwater star Russell Hammond (Chris Wood, being very James Taylor) and the band’s lead muse, Penny – don’t call her a groupie! – Lane (Solea Pfeiffer being very Kate Hudson), all but tuck the adorable Billy into bed at night.
Of course, the kid has fallen in love with the groupie and becomes unhinged when Russell dumps Penny to go back to his ex-wife (Libby Winters). Suddenly, William Miller is not only the parent at the party; he is Arthur Miller dictating the last act of some moralistic dirge about Taking Moral Responsibility.
And speaking of the real onstage parent, Larsen makes no sense in the thankless role of William’s mom. Did I get this right? She’s deeply concerned about her underage son but has absolutely no control over him as he travels across America in a busload of rockers for weeks (months?) as he also does his high school homework long-distance while writing — actually, the kid does a lot of not writing — for a major magazine? Compared to the bipolar mother in “Next to Normal,” this character is the one Social Services should visit first.
Tom Kitt wrote the music for “Next to Normal,” and with “Almost Famous,” he is credited as co-lyricist and composer of most of the score. He is at his best with dreamy ballads like “Morocco,” nicely sung by Pfeiffer, that convey a sense of elusive longing. But after a few of these songs, Kitt’s penchant for the 4/4 time signature becomes a kind of corn syrup poured over the entire score.
The real Stillwater songs “Fever Dog” and “I Come at Night” make brief appearances, when the band is practicing or performing onstage. More telling is the use of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” to end Act 1 – a verbatim re-creation of a scene from the movie. What is happening here as the band travels on the road in their bus? Did someone in Stillwater turn on the radio, and having a brief lapse of good taste, prefer Elton John to anything written by Tom Kitt?