By Holli Harms
We can’t help but compare. We as humans, in order to make sense of our lives and shortcut our decision-making, are prone to put two fruits side by side and search for similarities, disappointed when they are not the same even though they are both called fruit. Comparing apples to oranges will never bring you satisfaction and will only disappoint your apple and orange experience.
Cameron Crowe was the writer and director of the film Almost Famous which we all hold dear and close, and his Broadway musical based on the film, I also now hold dear and close.
But don’t go in anticipating a movie on stage, that will only hamper your experience of the joy and fun and fabulous musical numbers unfolding in real-time in front of you. Step into the Bernard B. Jacob Theater on 45th street and let the music transport you. The entire production of Almost Famous will lift you up and in the end, deposit you back in your seat a better person for having been there.
Though the story is basically the same, there is deeper character development in the stage production that is accentuated by the book, lyrics, and choreography which makes for a rich journey.
William Miller (portrayed with boyish brilliance by Casey Likes) a young, very young, writer for editorial giants Creem, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times, is on a journey with the up-and-coming band known as Stillwater. This journey helped along by his over-exuberant kvetching mentor Lester Bangs ( passionate energetic Rob Colletti ) forms his youth and his life. It is the story of the groupie world summarized in the narrative of the character Penny Lane (the astonishing Solea Pfieffer) and it is the story of the lead guitarist of the band Russell Hammond (beautifully played with 70’s artistic angst by Chris Wood ) whose rise to stardom is drowning him, moving him out of the true life he wanted as a musical artist and into the life of a Rock n Roll God, a space where creativity is muffled, pushed aside, and drowned. Anika Larsen, as William’s straight-forward disciplined uptight mother whose love knows no boundaries, is magnificent, as is Drew Gehling as the band Stillwater’s lanky Robert Plantesque swaggering star-bound lead singer. The whole cast is perfection. Absolute out-of-this-world perfection. I also have to hold up Sarah O’Gleby’s choreography as an architectural, magical, creative response to song and story that doesn’t fit into any labeled box. It not only adds to the storyline, but it is also the art of movement on its own.
Almost Famous, reconceptualized for the stage, is a love story between the sounds of the Broadway Musical and Rock n Roll. It brings the two American genres together in one tight raise-the-roof production that had the audience cheering throughout the whole show. At the core of both musical genres is music that can transcend us to a different time and world. Music that lifts us up, music that you feel in your body and soul. Music that time-travels you, that rejuvenates you. Cameron Crowe and Tom Kitt have brought exactly that to the Broadway stage. Jeremy Herrin’s direction moves the story along at a breakneck pace, but there are also many heartfelt moments pouring out of the coming-of-age depth and confusion for William and Penny, Russell, and yes, William’s mother as well. Mothers go through it too and suffer as they watch their young grow and break away, as they must.
Music is unifying, it is uncomplicated universal communication, and for those of us who cannot communicate by conventional means music is a savior of sorts, a friend. Near us, there was a young man with his guardian and one stuffed friend he had brought to the show for emotional support. After each Broadway musical rock n roll moment that moved him, he would hold up his stuffed friend and wave them in the air. His quiet tribute to what touched him. He held them up often. He was transcended by the story and the songs. He was visibly, clearly appreciative as was the rest of the audience, their hands up cheering and applauding like participants in a concert.
This is Broadway musical extraordinaire!
Almost Famous features a book and lyrics by Academy Award® winner Cameron Crowe, music and lyrics by Tony, Grammy, Emmy and Pulitzer Prize Award® winner Tom Kitt, direction by Tony and Olivier Award® nominee Jeremy Herrin, and choreography by Sarah O’Gleby.
The production stars Chris Wood, Anika Larsen, Solea Pfeiffer, Drew Gehling, Rob Colletti, and introducing Casey Likes. The company will also include Matt Bittner, Chad Burris, Gerard Canonico, Julia Cassandra, Brandon Contreras, Jakeim Hart, Van Hughes, Jana Djenne Jackson, Claire Kwon, Katie Ladner, Danny Lindgren, Erica Mansfield, Alisa Melendez, Kevin Trinio Perdido, Andrew Poston, Emily Schultheis, Daniel Sovich, Libby Winters, and Matthew C. Yee.
Almost Famous at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (242 W 45th St)
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15 intermission