Almost Famous – Sweet, But Ho-Hum

1973. “It’s over,” Creem Magazine editor Lester Bangs (excellent Rob Colletti) tells us at the top of the show (then wryly commenting throughout as the protagonist’s mentor). “The mud and guts of rock and roll are gone….It’s gloriously and ridiculously dumb and should stay that way.” At a time Pink Floyd , Steely Dan, and Led Zeppelin were popular, the curmudgeon’s taste runs to hardcore performers like punk rocker, Iggy Pop. With only high school paper articles under his belt, precocious 15 year-old William Miller (Casey Likes – a fine performer, but far too old for the role), wants to write for Creem. (The real writer/editor Lester Bangs was known for his influence on rock criticism.)

Casey Likes (William) and Rob Colletti (Bangs)

“Where’s your pain?!” Bangs asks skeptically, questioning the kid’s emotional credentials. “Meet my mother,” William counters. And we do – ba-dump dump. Mrs. Miller (a solid, sympathetic Anika Larsen) thinks even Simon and Garfunkel’s material leads to drugs and sex. An overprotective single parent, she’s lied to her son about his age so that he can’t run with an older crowd. His sister Anita (Emily Schultheis) reveals the truth.

The editor gives William a trial assignment. His advice? “Don’t make friends with the rock stars. They want you to write sanctimonious stories… build your reputation being honest and unmerciful.” Herein lies the crux of the show.

Casey Likes (William); Solea Pfeiffer (Penny Lane)

Trying to get in a stage door, but too easily deflected, William encounters “the Band-Aids” (groupies= young women who glommed onto rock bands, serially bedding musicians for proximity to fame and talent – ostensibly because of the music). These are Estrella (Julia Cassandra), Sapphire (Katie Ladner), and Polexia (Jana Djenne Jackson). He also meets and is taken under the wing of groupie goddess Penny Lane (the talented and appealing Solea Pfeiffer) who, to date, “has 14 songs written about her.” “Call me if you need a rescue or a river to skate away on,” Lane offers William, quoting the Joni Mitchell song.

For the record, at 15 during his first writing commission, author Cameron Crowe met self-identified inspiration for Penny Lane, now 74 year-old Pamela De Barres. The acknowledged queen of the groupies hooked up with Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page, not to mention an extremely wide roster of other rock gods. (See her book, I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, or her site. Another woman then calling herself Pennie Lane appears to have cut less of a swath through the industry.

Drew Gehling (Jeff) and Chris Wood (Russell)

De Barres thinks Crowe’s take is a “horribly misogynistic look at what a groupie-muse is” and that he whitewashed the scene. The former is a matter of perspective. The latter, at least in a musical, has understandably been cleaned up. One does wonder at the off-handedness with which Russell Hammond’s (Chris Wood – good actor, bad miming guitar player) acid-infused leap off a roof is depicted, however. He miraculously comes away with barely a scratch, but oh, the engineered flight down is grand.

As the band Stillwater heads backstage, William catches the group’s attention with praise and knowledge of their work. Nicknamed “the enemy” (never trust a journalist) and taken for 18, the innocent teenager is given a pass to the world he craves. Meanwhile Ben Fong-Torres, an actual writer at the time (Matthew C. Yee), calls from Rolling Stone to offer an assignment based on local coverage he’s read.

Anika Larsen (Mrs. Miller)

William drops his voice, proposes Stillwater as a subject and is hired at a mind-boggling $500. He’s in! Mom surprisingly lets her boy get on the band bus with a promise to telephone regularly and be back in four days time for graduation. Author Russell Crowe makes the character’s concern and involvement believable without being intrusive. The exception not of sentiment, but appropriate location, would be singing to her college class about rock stars having kidnapped her son.

Penny tells William if he doesn’t take “the circus” seriously, he can’t be hurt. The truth is, in love with Russell (who’s in and out of his marriage) and battered by the life, she’s vulnerable. “Morocco” an over the rainbow aspiration to freedom and personal creativity, is pretty enough but a bit too vague.

We track Stillwater cross country with a giant map. Band-Aids treat William like a puppy – until they don’t. The musicians think of him as a mascot. Russell continually ducks a personal interview which could potentially ruin the boy’s affiliation with Rolling Stone. Still, for the first time in his life, William feels a sense of community, of belonging. He falls in love with Penny. Protectively, he’s is outraged when Russell bets his lover’s company in a poker game for $50 and a case of beer, and is the only one to look after the young woman when despair takes its toll at the guitarist’s rejection.

Solea Pfeiffer (Penny Lane) and Chris Wood (Russell)

Almost Famous eschews both ends of the spectrum – the generation’s gentler side (remember flower power?) and decadence associated with rock and its hangers-on. It also fails to examine the way rock stars introduced a new celebrity. Walking the middle ground, this is a sweet coming of age story with an arc, lessons, and a more or less happy ending. Young people will relate, though it’s unfortunate the era is not embodied by better (more interesting or exciting) music.

The piece is over burdened by 30 numbers. Many, from the film, are generic contributions from Crowe and his then wife Nancy Wilson. Lyrics are often awkward or cliché. Covers by such as The Allman Brothers, Deep Purple, and Stevie Wonder are fragmented, cut-up by dialogue, and similarly arranged causing them to land the same way. There are so few original theater songs, if one hums anything upon exit, it’s Elton John/ Bernie Taupin’s “Tiny Dancer,” which works splendidly as placed. (Music supervision and direction by Bryan Perri.)

Director Jeremy Herrin does at best a yeoman-like job. Little imagination or character-definition is evident. Choreographer Sarah O’Gleby consistently creates a messy stage. Derek McLane’s video design is attractive and atmospheric. The rest of the scenery looks cheap.

Costumes by David Zinn are “right” but denim was not all. Where are the Army/Navy components, the East Indian influence? One ersatz Stevie Nicks outfit doesn’t show the creativity and resourcefulness of the period or of its rock denizens.

Natasha Katz’s lighting and Peter Hylenski’s sound design evoke the era without hurting audience eyes and ears (not a given). Band lyrics, however, are often lost in lack of balance.

Photos by Matt Murphy

Almost Famous
Book and Lyrics by Cameron Crowe
Music and Lyrics by Tom Kitt
Based on the Paramount Pictures and Columbia Pictures Motion Picture written by Cameron Crowe
Directed by Jeremy Herrin

About Alix Cohen (1720 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.