The new musical ‘Almost Famous’ is not even almost great



NEW YORK — Warning: Do not re-watch the 2000 movie “Almost Famous” if you plan to see “Almost Famous,” the new Broadway musical. Because the movie is so good. And the stage version is so less good.

Comparisons are anathema but seem unavoidable in the case of this musical, which marked its official Broadway opening Thursday night at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre. Cameron Crowe, who wrote and directed the movie, starring Billy Crudup and Kate Hudson, recycles the screenplay, including large chunks of dialogue, for the Broadway incarnation. And though Tom Kitt — winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his own, highly original musical, “Next to Normal” — collaborated with Crowe on some new songs, the show is not much more than a wan rewind of what transpired on-screen.

Broadway is afflicted with an unfortunate habit, one that must seem in spitballing sessions rife with marketing opportunity: Take a known film quantity and make it live. (That is “live” with a long “i.” Making it live, with a short “i,” is a whole other level of challenge.) Set in 1973, the year I graduated from high school, “Almost Famous” does feel like bait for boomers, a group nostalgic for the heyday of rock.

But the musical, mounted on a sparse stage and directed with a paucity of inspiration by Jeremy Herrin, fails to capitalize on the key ingredient that made the movie such an emblem of a remarkable time: its ability to evoke the tumult and intensity and romance of a band on tour as an era ends. As distilled once again through the experiences of William Miller (Casey Likes in fine voice), the 15-year-old who wangles an assignment from Rolling Stone magazine, the story misses its deft movie performances, its jubilant sense of chaos.

A pleasant rock score, enlivened by tunes from the movie by Elton John, Gregg Allman, Nancy Wilson and others, buoys “Almost Famous” at times, particularly in the up-tempo production number, “1973,” that opens the show. Crowe and Kitt augment the songs by the story’s fictional band, Stillwater, with character-driven ballads for the likes of Penny Lane (Solea Pfeiffer), who prefers to call herself a “Band Aid” rather than answer to the more pedestrian label of “groupie.” One of the better, more wistful musical additions, “Morocco,” expands on mysterious Penny’s musing about her next escape from humdrum reality.

But this outing with “Almost Famous” never quite manages to endear us to Penny and the other Band Aids: Julia Cassandra, Katie Ladner and Jana Djenne Jackson portray them, all dressed in period pop by David Zinn. “They took the mud and the guts out of rock-and-roll,” says Lester Bangs, the real-life rock critic played here by Rob Colletti, as he lectures the budding journalist on rock’s decline. Bangs materializes periodically to amplify the notion of a music writer’s responsibilities, and as with the Band Aids, the character is rather awkwardly imposed on the proceedings. The elements and personalities of the production never fully coalesce.

Chris Wood plays the pivotal role of Russell Hammond, Stillwater’s charismatic guitarist. Drew Gehling is Jeff Bebe, the band’s covetous frontman (and all too transparent comic foil). And Anika Larsen is William’s overbearing mom, Elaine. All have to step into imposing shoes (inhabited wondrously in the movie by, respectively, Crudup, Jason Lee and Francis McDormand.) Not that there is no possibility of fresh interpretation, but the characters were so memorably owned by their originators that these actors have been bequeathed well nigh impossible tasks.

See, I should not have re-watched the movie. Here, Herrin, Crowe and company replicate the touchstone moments: the confessions of the band members as their plane to the next gig hits a violent thunderstorm, Russell on a rooftop high on acid, declaring to the throngs below that he is a “golden god.” In the end, all that these re-creations bring to mind is that imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery.

Almost Famous, book by Cameron Crowe, music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Crowe and Kitt. Directed by Jeremy Herrin. Choreography, Sarah O’Gleby; sets and video, Derek McLane; music direction, Bryan Perri. With Brandon Contreras, Matt Bittner, Emily Schultheis. About 2½ hours. At Bernard Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York.

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