And they say that Bobby in COMPANY is a cipher.
Sondheim and Furth’s character is a six-point-six on the Richter Scale compared to William Miller in ALMOST FAMOUS.
How could William be anything else, given the circumstances in Cameron Crowe’s musical adaptation of his much-admired 2000 film? There William was a 15-year old boy who was thrown into the world where everyone was, if not older and wiser, at least more experienced in sex, drugs and rock and roll. William spent much of the film watching what was put before him. Yes, he learned about his heroes and his peers, but rather slowly. Much time passed before he erupted over what he came to despise.
And when William does the same in this m-u-s-i-c-a-l, he yells about it much more than he sings.
Let’s do the math. The Playbill’s list of Musical Numbers shows William in merely nine of the show’s 27 numbers and three reprises. More surprisingly, only in two is he listed first.
Of the remaining seven, Russell Hammond, the star for perhaps-up-and-coming band Stillwater, gets first billing twice. Penny Lane, Russell’s sometime girlfriend and full time groupie (a label she detests) receives it five times.
And why not? They’re the more compelling characters.
William could have been more of one. People sing in musicals when they’re so worked up over what’s happening that mere speech can no longer contain their emotions.
So where’s William’s song after he’s disappointed that Russell and the others dump their manager for a supposedly better one only minutes after they staunchly insisted that they wouldn’t? Why doesn’t his outrage at Russell’s essentially selling Penny for $500 to another group lead to a song? After that incident, William merely speaks while background music plays. Later, when Rolling Stone rejects his story, he silently storms off. What’s he thinking? Musical theater allows a character to step forward and pour out his feelings. William seldom does, so what kind of “musical” is this?
It could be said to be Penny’s show instead. Mysterious characters often grab our attention, and here’s one who of course admits that her name isn’t what her parents gave her. From the outset, Penny exhibits the confidence from having her own set of fans who view her the grandest of groupies — no, “Band Aid,” as she insists. Penny shows William what she knows and leads him in and out of scrapes as he dutifully follows. Which of these two will better hold your interest: the leader or the follower?
Just as Crowe was critical of the teen scene when he broke through from his excellent film FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, he chose to show the unattractive underbelly of the rock scene through his ALMOST FAMOUS screenplay and now in this libretto.
And yet, his rock musical winds up vaguely insulting rock. In the film, Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing esteemed critic Lester Bangs, wasn’t shown to low-comic disadvantage as Rob Colletti is here. The way Colletti plays the role suggests much more pretentiousness and self-importance that Hoffman smartly avoided. We’ll never know if Colletti was ordered to overdo it from director Jeremy Herrin or if the actor brought this characterization into the rehearsal room and Herrin exclaimed “Leave it in!” Whatever the case, the decision was an over-the-top one.
(While we’re at it, where’s Lester’s song near the end of the show? Here he’s at his most honest in admitting that he and other writers are “uncool” compared to The Real Stars. He too only speaks rather than sings.)
Russell is equally self-important, declaring that what he writes is “fucking poetry for the people.” He also spends a good deal of time talking about what’s “real,” although much of his behavior towards Penny — and his wife — reveals that he’s far from it.
There’s nothing wrong with the way Chris Wood is playing Russell; he’s doing the job he’s been handed and doing a good job of it.
Penny also mentions reality more than once, but never more effectively than when she sincerely sings to William that “the real world gave me you.” It’s one of the musical’s simplest yet most eloquent lyrics. Solea Pfeiffer delivers it with the requisite sincerity.
What she also deftly displays is youthful naïveté when she divulges her plans to go to Morocco (in a very nice song). She makes it seem as wondrous a promised land as The Sundance Kid believed Bolivia to be.
The lyrics, a collaboration between Crowe and Tom Kitt, display exceptional craft. Perfect rhymes are the norm, which is rarely the case with rock musicals that sloppily match “town” with “around.” In addition, there’s never a moment when a character sings anything that he or she wouldn’t say.
There’s a temptation to assume that Crowe, a musical stage newbie, is less responsible for this excellence than Kitt, who’s had five Broadway musicals, two-off Broadway and one regional staple (FREAKY FRIDAY). Kitt isn’t an EGOT winner, but he can boast of a PEGT — and his Pulitzer for next to normal is a fine substitute for an Oscar. His music also aptly fits the characters’ sensibilities and emotions.
When Casey Likes comes on stage as William, those who know the film may assume that Crowe has finally admitted that his screenplay contained an unbelievable situation. A mother wouldn’t seem likely to let her 15-year-old son go on the road with a rock band and expect that her constant admonition of “Don’t do drugs” will be enough of a deterrent.
(And never mind that Crowe’s mother let him do precisely this when he was approaching 16 and followed The Allman Brothers; we must be convinced by the storytelling rather than through aged facts that we can’t be expected to know. Doing such homework in advance is not in an audience’s job description.)
Unfortunately, Casey Likes in fact celebrated his 15th birthday almost six years ago and looks it. You’d be well within your rights to assume that Crowe must have decided that William should now be nearing his college graduation instead of his high school commencement. No: seconds into the show, William is once again established as 15. You may only think so if you’re in Row K in the balcony.
Too bad Casey Likes didn’t make his Broadway debut in a musical where he would play a twentysomething. There he’d be triumphant, for he sings and moves well, and has more than a dollop of charisma. But being older by one-and-a-half presidential administrations is an insurmountable barrier.
Where’s the open-faced innocence of the film’s William? Mister, we could use a boy like Patrick Fugit again, for during filming he was literally 16 going on 17, and made William seem as inexperienced as Liesl von Trapp.
Ironically, the character who receives a good deal of applause, affectionate laughter and validation is one we might not expect in this world: William’s mother. “Elaine’s Lecture” at the top of Act Two gets the audience to empathize when she moans that the rock world has “kidnapped my son.” Her telling off Russell in no uncertain terms receives instant applause as well. Credit to Anika Larsen for making a mom close to even-tempered and never a harridan when laying down her laws.
The reason for this? ALMOST FAMOUS takes place in 1973, so perhaps today’s audience members who were then around William’s age — and have since endured 15-year-old kids of their own — have found their values change from their sheer parental experiences.
Within the show’s first minutes, we hear Russell proclaim that “We play for fans, not critics.” The second part of that statement has turned out to be true for the musical; ALMOST FAMOUS received lukewarm response most reviewers.
However, if the mild applause that greeted most numbers at the November 7th performance means anything, the show isn’t playing to fans, either. The reception at the end of most every number had all the markings of “Oh, you’re sort of expected to clap after each song, aren’t you?”
Of all the rock-centric musicals that have made it to Broadway, this may be the one whose songs receive the fewest “Whoos!” that Crowe and Kitt might have expected.
ALMOST FAMOUS is well-produced, however, and the musical staging that we must assume that choreographer Sarah O’Gleby offers is excellent. That all the performers walk so effortlessly through the many rolling door frames must have taken considerable effort. They just keep rolling along in a musical that should stop much more often to let William Miller have his say — in song.