A star-making performance by Casey Likes forms the beating heart of Almost Famous, a new musical adaptation of the 2000 Cameron Crowe film now open on Broadway. Actually, Likes isn’t the musical’s heart as much as he’s what’s keeping it going–its life support. Chopping storytelling and a mystifying score keep Almost Famous from reaching the heights of its source material, but it’s not an entire waste. There are occasional moments where the show has a spark of something like life and Likes is delivering a turn to remember.
As in the film, Crowe’s book follows fifteen-year-old William Miller (Likes), an aspiring rock journalist who manages, through precociousness and misunderstanding, to land an assignment from Rolling Stone. William joins the rock band Stillwater on tour and has several awakenings about adulthood, love, and fandom. Penny Lane (Solea Pfeiffer) is the leader of The Band-Aids a group of not-groupies who travel with the band, and she is in a situationship with Stillwater’s lead guitarist, Russell Hammond (Chris Wood). Russell is the breakout star of the band, to the annoyance of its lead singer, Jeff Bebe (Drew Gehling). As William tries to get his story he also fends off calls from his strict mother (Anika Larsen) who wants him to come home in time for his high school graduation.
For a musical about music, Crowe and composer Tom Kitt are unwilling to let a song begin and end without interrupting it several times with dialogue or separating its verses across scenes. Very rarely does an entire song occur without underscoring dialogue or without a busy scene change happening in the middle of it. The choreography by Sarah O’Gleby is never able to work up any excitement in its steps, because there’s always something else coming in to stop the dancing, be it another mini-scene or another piece of Derek McLane’s set.
In the film, there are almost always songs playing under what’s happening and it dips in and out as the scenes conclude. But that device does not work on stage, as much as they’re trying. Kitt repeatedly tries to ramp us back into the song by having characters suddenly emit a piercing wail out of relative quiet and it’s jarring and unpleasant every time. The songs can’t make an impact because they’re never allowed to build and resolve organically, they just explode over and over.
The musical succeeds in the few instances where it lets the songs take up space. William’s mother, Elaine, delivers a lecture at the beginning of the second act that devolves into a treatise about how she has been unable to connect with her children. Anika Larsen has to stand in the shadow of Frances McDormand’s Oscar-nominated performance in the film, but she finds a way to keep Elaine’s deadpan command and make it her own. The song humanizes Elaine, just for the audience, while the characters around her spend the entire musical talking about what a buzzkill she is.
With no fault to Solea Pfeiffer, the musical doesn’t elevate Penny Lane to the iconic status of Kate Hudson’s portrayal in the film. Costume designer David Zinn has replicated the coat (with some new touches), but Penny isn’t given a standout solo song at any point in the show. Even when she sings a cover of Cat Stevens’ “The Wind” in the second act, she’s on a catwalk above the stage while other things are happening below her. The rest of the time, she sings duets with Russell or William. It’s foolish to have a generational talent like Pfeiffer and not let her blow the roof off the house.
Pfeiffer and Likes do share a lovely duet in the second act when Penny is recuperating from an overdose of quaaludes. Penny and William sing about how they’ll find each other in “The Real World”, not the fantasy they’ve all been living in while on tour. It brings a sobering reality into the musical and Kitt, Crowe, and director Jeremy Herrin let it happen on an almost bare stage with just the two characters sharing a park bench. The show takes a second to focus, breathe, and let the characters connect emotionally.
In the first act, William is given an Elton John-esque song that allows Likes to shine. William realizes that he’s getting too close to Stillwater and the Band-Aids and is losing his journalistic objectivity. “No Friends”, in addition to being the show’s one true banger of a song, also presents a lot of information about William. He’s a nerdy kid who has no close friends and now, these adults who are the pinnacle of cool, want to hang out with him, but he’s there as an outside observer. He has to reconcile his career aspirations with his feelings for his new friends. Likes has a powerful voice and an ability to harness it to zero in on a song’s emotional core. Likes is an intelligent, sensitive actor in addition to his singing. Crowe has written him a fantastic part (the only worthwhile role, to be honest) and Likes makes a meal of it. I kept thinking what a gift it is to see somebody so talented have such a great part to play and how grateful I am to discover him here instead of wearing a cast and waving through a window. “No Friends” is the musical’s standout moment by miles.
It is that flash of brilliance that disappoints the most, though. If the musical’s creators had found a way to harness that lighting and spread it out across the rest of the show, or to even give Pfeiffer an equal moment (or one half as close!), it might have improved the overall quality. Instead, we’re left longing for more. It’s a perfectly passable musical, one that the audience around me seemed to eat up. It’s just a let down to see a moment of what it could have been and have to sit through what it actually is.