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Entertainment & Arts

Review: In the ‘Almost Famous’ musical, Cameron Crowe’s coming-of-age rock tale burns bright

Katie Ladner as Sapphire, left, Solea Pfeiffer as Penny Lane, Casey Likes as William Miller, Julia Cassandra as Estrella and Storm Lever as Polexia in “Almost Famous,” the musical having its world premiere at the Old Globe in San Diego.
Katie Ladner as Sapphire, left, Solea Pfeiffer as Penny Lane, Casey Likes as William Miller, Julia Cassandra as Estrella and Storm Lever as Polexia in “Almost Famous,” the musical having its world premiere at the Old Globe in San Diego.
(Neal Preston)

“Almost Famous,” the musical spun from Cameron Crowe’s autobiographically inspired 2000 film about a teenage rock journalist’s freewheeling sentimental education while on the road with an up-and-coming band, had its official opening on Friday at the Old Globe Theatre and the work is as shimmering as a stadium of lighters during a Led Zeppelin encore.

After countless hours spent on the I-5 driving to San Diego to check out musicals based on popular movies or music catalogs, I can finally report that the city has an unqualified winner. How good is the show? The world premiere production, directed by Jeremy Herrin, is as pleasing as a free and easy 1970s rock classic.

Crowe has adapted his Oscar-winning screenplay into the musical’s book, which preserves much of what was so appealing about the film without insisting on perfect fidelity. The times have changed, and so this retro tale (set in 1973) has had to make adjustments in detail and tone for today’s sensitivities. Small accommodations have been implemented (a gay joke has been cut, one or two questionable sexual situations have been more scrupulously arranged), but the film’s wild spirit remains intact.

The most notable change is in the rhythm of the storytelling. The show, which includes original music by Tony-winner Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal”), who collaborated on the lyrics with Crowe, floats on a cloud of groovy rock that evokes the early 1970s without ever seeming like a pair of faded secondhand jeans.

Cameron Crowe explains how he’s updated his love letter to the Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd era — and tweaked the key part of a teen girl groupie.
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Seamlessly incorporated into the score are carefully chosen hits from the period, including a mesmerizing, just-hanging-out-with-the-band rendition of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” which closes the first act, and a haunting evocation of Joni Mitchell’s indelible “River” during an emotional crisis in the second half. There’s nothing commercially exploitative about the use of this music. Kitt’s arrangements and orchestrations artfully weave these vintage treasures into an entrancing tapestry of sound. (Hats off to music director Bryan Perri and conductor-keyboardist Daniel Green for getting such an authentic concert feeling from the orchestra.)

The opening number, “1973,” sets the scene with the help of recitative. Precocious 15-year-old William Miller (Casey Likes), his forward-thinking yet hypervigilant widowed mother, Elaine (Anika Larsen), and rebellious sister, Anita (Emily Schultheis), are introduced in their San Diego home amid the backdrop of a changing zeitgeist as the radical upheaval of the 1960s gives way to the fuzzier freedoms of the 1970s.

On hand to ensure that radical values are properly understood and upheld is famed rock critic Lester Bangs (a charmingly slobby Rob Colletti), whose role has expanded from the film. He’s still a distant mentor to William, who is searching to discover himself in the bands that have given him a glimpse of unshackled adulthood. But Bangs also serves as a highly opinionated chorus, giving historical dimension and pointed sensibility to the story.

The fluidity of Herrin’s staging is integral to the musical’s authorship. The story of a teenage outsider trying to liberate himself from a cramped adolescence without betraying his basic goodness occasionally recalls “Dear Evan Hansen,” but the synchronicity of movement and musical narrative brings to mind the poetic smoothness of “The Band’s Visit.”

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Lorin Latarro’s choreography lends butterfly grace to exits and entrances. Even the scene shifts are mesmerizing. Derek McLane’s sets are made to move, and the design team (including Natasha Katz’s lighting, Peter Hylenski’s sound and David Zinn’s costumes) helps keep the production aloft with a swirl of visual and acoustic style.

The singing, especially in the big ensemble numbers, is quite simply gorgeous. When William gets a magazine assignment to interview Stillwater, a band that seems poised for a breakthrough, he meets a group of fan girls known as the Band-Aids, whose voices enchant every bit as much as the artists they worship.

First among these acolytes is the pseudonymous Penny Lane (a goddess-like Solea Pfeiffer luminously reinventing the Kate Hudson role), who has supposedly retired as a groupie but a gravitational pull keeps her within the orbit of the band’s quietly cocky lead guitarist, Russell Hammond (an appealing Colin Donnell). Her musical numbers, which includes “Morocco,” a dreamy ballad of future travel, and magical moments from “River,” are some of the most exquisite in the show.

George Salazar (“Be More Chill”), Mj Rodriguez (“Pose”) and Amber Riley (“Glee”) bring a fresh take to the musical about a man-eating plant.

The Dionysian thrill of performing in a rock band is conveyed not just through the onstage act of Stillwater, led by insecure frontman Jeff Bebe (a comically gangly Drew Gehling), but through the backstage rivalries and romances that fuel the songwriting. If the book could use any fine-tuning, it’s in handling of the personalities that William has been assigned to profile for Rolling Stone.

The vividness of the ensemble, a credit to the top-notch cast, makes it all the more important that Jeff and Russell are sharply defined. Right now, the reputations of the characters are being portrayed more than the characters themselves. Too many of the band scenes dash by like concertgoer snapshots. Jeff and Russell, whose character is more layered, deserve a few more realistic lineaments. As it stands, the magnetism of Pfeiffer’s Penny, legging about in heels, shorts and a version of that famous shearling coat won by Hudson, could make one think that this glamorous groupie is the traveling band’s real star. (In a way, as William recognizes, she is, but Stillwater still has to hold its own.)

Likes’ portrayal of William draws out the ambivalent enthusiasm of a boy whose secret dreams have unexpectedly come true. Heightening the guilt is William’s mother on the other end of the phone, sounding the alarms about pot and promiscuity. (Larsen plays up the worried mom comedy without ever becoming a cartoon.)

William can’t help being drawn to rock’s flame, but as a budding critic (“the enemy,” as he’s affectionately dubbed), he has to keep a certain space between himself and the artists who want to control how he sees them. The enthralling number “No Friends” expresses the dilemma William faces of being seduced by the subjects he’s supposed to be critically observing. To write memorably requires a certain independence. But fitting in with a crowd this outlandishly cool is hard to resist.

“Almost Famous” isn’t just a glimpse into the beginnings of a fledgling music-writer who became a major filmmaker. It’s the story of any artist’s battle between compromise and complexity. But it’s the spirit of the music — a vibe that goes from laid back to frenetic in a blink — that captivates. The chaotic, communal spirit of ‘70s rock is distilled in a musical that seems destined to conquer Broadway.

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'Almost Famous'
Where: The Old Globe Theatre, Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 27. (Check for exceptions.)

Tickets: $70 and up

Info: (619) 234-5623. TheOldGlobe.org

Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes


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