Rambling on. My Thoughts on Almost Famous The Musical

Almost Famous: The Musical – The Old Globe, San Diego

Casey Likes leads as William Miller in Almost Famous The Musical at The Old Globe Theatre, San Diego
Casey Likes leads as William Miller in Almost Famous The Musical at The Old Globe Theatre, San Diego

Nineteen years after its USA release, celebrated writer and film-maker Cameron Crowe has brought his semi-autobiographical tale of rock stars, band aids, and rock journalism back to his home town where the real life events all began. Pass by The Old Globe in San Diego’s Balboa Park and you will indeed see this is not a screening of the classic movie, but a reworking of Crowe’s source into a brand new musical. 

Fans of the film – of which I’m very much one – will surely ask themselves several questions. Will this have the Stillwater songs? How can you have a musical about the 70s rock scene without Crowe’s expertly curated needle drops? Will Tiny Dancer be there and how will this mix with the new songs by Tom Kitt? Will my favourite lines and moments still be there?

The key to all answering all of these is that whilst a new adaptation from the source, the source is purely not just the film, but the memories and craftsmanship of Cameron himself. He is our Ambassador of Kwan, and in Crowe we must trust.   He has assembled a winning team of collaborators to reimagine the journey that Doris the Bus takes it’s inhabitants on, and as writer of the book and lyrics, he remains central to this new vision. 

Clearly, I am a fan, so like William Miller – the lead character whose story sees him wrestling to find professionalism & integrity as he realises his dream of being a rock journalist – I am somewhat compromised in writing my thoughts. But Lester Bangs – portrayed by a truly fire-fuelled Rob Colletti – says, “be honest and unmerciful.” What I share is both my honest opinion and also as spoiler free as possible. 

To begin with… this is what the trade calls an “out of town [Broadway] tryout”. Believe me when I say that what’s presented is far more polished than many fully open shows I’ve seen on the west end. 

Director Jeremy Herrin has clearly worked closely on collaborating the design of space and movement. There’s an incredible fluidity to the way we’re moved at speed through the tight corridors of sports arenas, all whilst Derek McLane’s set remains, largely, wide open, and industrial. Flanked in the corners by rock concert lighting trusses, scenery flies and is pushed in and out, moving us seamlessly between locations as William tours with the band Stillwater in the much cherished bus, christened “Doris”.

The choreography too has a beautiful simplicity. There are distinct call and returns in the language that the movement provides. At times it makes William seem like Peter Pan, however here the boy wants to grow up, and the acrobatics (for my money) scream the inner conflicts that tumble and literally pull him back to being a boy. The band’s entourage have a care-free looseness that represents the generation of love, where anything goes. Add in the costumes and you feel like you really are there in 1973 – says the chap who has no idea what the era was like, though in my soul, this is exactly how I imagine it.

Fans are extremely well serviced. Is your favourite line / moment here? Depends what it is. As this is a different format, with songs filling space and limits to what can be achieved in a sole space, not everything can ever be expected to transferred.  My promise to my fellow Crowe junkies is this, you will be so overwhelmed by the strength of what’s offered here, you won’t even notice if a specific moment has been cut. You’ll gleefully ride the pure positivity of what you’re lapping up. 

Clearly. Respectfully. I will mention a few things you’ll likely want to know, just to put your mind at ease. 

Tiny Dancer is there. It’s even more powerful in person. The joy of music overcomes and unites us after all! 

Russell is still a Golden God. I’ve never experienced a reaction anything like the one to this moment, in any theatre I’ve sat in, anywhere in the world. I know us Brit’s think American audiences are naturally way more vocal in appreciation at shows. Not true. We all exclaim glee with whoops and cheers when we just cannot keep it inside any longer, and these uncool moments bind us. This moment. This reaction. The hairs on my arm just raised again as I sit in this San Diego coffee shop typing this.

Dennis Hope still has views on Mick Jagger. Respectfully, of course.

Elaine is still as fierce, yet her reasoning is much better portrayed here. In the film, “She means well, “ is enough to tell us everything we need to know. But this is MT. We need more. As someone who always loved the sheer force of nature she employed solely to do the best by her children, I came away loving her even more. The new song, “Elaine’s Lecture” serves this cause with perfection.

It’s funny. Like, REALLY  funny. The film always had good humour. But on stage the same moments hit a home run way more effectively. But be warned. The same goes the other way. A quick flip of the dime and you will be reduced to pure, snotty tears of the best kind.

Led Zeppelin now exist in the realm of MT. I recall when I first saw the film that – a nerd of my knowledge – was blown away that so much of their music was licensed for use in a film. For those uninitiated, the band are extremely protective of their legacy and thus it’s extremely rare that they let anyone use any of their art for purposes other than their original intentions. If any of the band do end up reading my rambling on, rest assured, your music is in extremely safe hands. Likewise, Joni Mitchell’s “River” is used to extremely powerful effect. 

Lester Bangs is far more expanded. If you didn’t know that as a mentor, his voice was always guiding William’s journey in a ‘Clarence the Angel’ way, this staging sets out to make that abundantly clear. You don’t just see the acerbic wit of the man in moments of high energy, throughout this version you see the love he has of mentoring talent.

Penny’s coat is now brown. Don’t dismay. To me, this is a statement that you’re not watching a movie clone. It’s still stunning. It’s still very Penny.

Oh and yes. Fever Dog is there. Still scratching and a-howling on your back door. 

Thematically the show focuses far more on the individual journeys of the characters who traverse America in Doris the bus. A single view of the film and you’ll come away thinking it’s either about William or the band. Here, the importance of every path is more clearly laid out. For me this has always been the soul of the film; each person’s journey to the smile, the inner peace, the conflict resolution. After all, these are the moments to bank and replay as us mortals experience the ups and downs of life.

The new songs by Tom Kitt achieve this task with precision. Further, they hold up wonderfully alongside the classics of 70s rock that we hear. The work here amongst the best of his career. “Morocco” will make you swoon with instant effortlessness. The key refrain in “1973” will worm it’s way into your ear for days. The infamous band aids are fittingly given harmonious melodies that polish and shine every surface that their sound waves strike.

More impressive is how Kitt’s orchestrations and arrangements blend the sounds and motifs of the aforementioned classics alongside the famous Nancy Wilson cues from the (still) mythical original score, all into one flowing piece. For those who find the jumps of movie needle drops a chore, this approach makes the experience infinitely more palatable. And any teenager watching with no knowledge of the original film, nor the work of, say, Elton John, or Cat Stevens, will feel the flow and (hopefully) go away to learn more about the origins once their fandom kicks in.

What to say about the actors? They’re perfectly cast. What a boring line to contribute. But it’s true. You can feel the love in this company. Newcomer Casey Likes shines as William. It’s hard to comprehend that this is his debut production. He’s a star. Solea Pfeiffer exudes the mystique of Penny, with an uncanny ability to simultaneously share the character’s yearning to jump off the road and discover the “real world”. She also has a voice that you’ll want to marry. Seriously. It’s dreamy. Colin Donnell commands as Russell Hammond with the same calmness you saw in Billy Crudup’s performance for celluloid. Drew Gehling sears through vocal registers with sheer 70s rock prowess and gleefully swaps the smugness of Jason Lee’s Jeff Bebe for joy in the sheer stupid things that legend has told us can, nay, will come out the mouth of a paranoid front man. It feels distinctly unfair to single people out. As with shows such as Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen, you get the sense that this is a company that revel in putting their all into getting the best from each other. All for one and one for all!

Yes, dear reader, as you can undoubtedly tell, I’m delighted to report Almost Famous The Musical is match fit and ready to be a smash. Get the under 21’s through the door and an entirely new generation will learn about the joy and love of Sir Cameron Crowe. And that summarises my final thought. I left both viewings grinning ear to ear, with a belly full of positivity. In this increasingly divided and cynical, cynical world, that is the perfect medicine we need.

It really is all happening. Again!