Regional Reviews: San Diego
Those who know the film version well will quickly discern that not much has changed. The characters and their story haven't changed and many, if not most, of the film's lines are repeated. William Miller (Casey Likes) still goes on the road in 1973 with a band called Stillwater after it opens for Black Sabbath at the San Diego Sports Arena with a song called "Fever Dog." Lester Bangs (Rob Colletti) still takes on William as his rock-critic mentor. Penny Lane (Solea Pfeiffer) is still the most striking member of the groupies called Band-Aids and, yes, William still violates Bangs' cardinal rule of rock criticism: "Don't make friends with the band."
New to the piece are the songs by Tom Kitt (with Mr. Crowe as co-lyricist)and there are plenty of them, 23 in all. I counted a cover of Elton John and Bernie Taupin's "Tiny Dancer," and Joni Mitchell's song "River," in addition to "Fever Dog," as the songs originally appearing in the film version. The musical's songs are tuneful, and the lyrics reflect experience and wisdom that counteracts William's wide-eyed wonder. The best ones go to William's long-suffering but still supportive mother Elaine (Anika Larsen), and she nails them in perhaps the show's standout performance.
But the whole cast is well-suited to their roles. Colin Donnell (as Russell Hammond), Drew Gehling (as Jeff Bebe), Brandon Contreras (as Silent Ed Vallencourt), and Matt Bittner (as Larry Fellows) make Stillwater a loopy but loveable bunch, and Mr. Donnell still evades coming clean to William as he chases the interview he thinks will "make" his ever-lengthening Rolling Stone piece. Collectively, the band becomes the father William missed having while still pretending that he is "the enemy."
Likewise, the Band-Aids (Katie Ladner as Sapphire, Julia Cassandra as Estrella, and Storm Lever as Polexia, in addition to Ms. Pfeiffer) are the female pals William missed by skipping grades in school. They are charming and sexy, and their redeeming quality is that they love the music more than the guys. They also "get" William to a much greater degree than he gets himself.
Mr. Crowe's book is responsible for a fair amount of the good-natured quality of the characters (this is certainly no more than a PG-13 version of the rock 'n' roll world). But it's British director Jeremy Herrin who brings the charm to Almost Famous and keeps the audience caught up in the fantasy world of 1973 America. He's also fortunate to have as his central character a recent high school graduate who was a finalist for the 2019 National High School Musical Theatre Awards (aka Jimmy Awards) only a few months ago. Mr. Likes radiates an easy manner, sports a fine voice, and never lets on that he may be any less naïve than the 15-year-old character he plays. He's also helped by effective music direction from Bryan Perri and choreography by Lorin Latarro, whose distinguishing feature is a game Mr. Likes flying through the air. Frequently.
The creative team is Broadway caliber: scenic designer Derek McLane, costume designer David Zinn, lighting designer Natasha Katz, and sound designer Peter Hylenski. I especially appreciate Mr. McLane's inclusion of a built-in bookcase at the Miller's home, a feature that marks it as a middle-class San Diego residence. I also appreciate Mr. Zinn's attention to detail that yielded T-shirts with different slogans for each of Lester Bangs' appearances.
The film version of Almost Famous proved to be both a critical and audience favorite, and I suspect the musical version will duplicate that accomplishment.
Almost Famous runs through through October 27, 2019, at The Old Globe Theatre, Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego CA. Performances are Sundays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets and information are available at the box office, by calling 619-23-GLOBE (234-5623), or by visiting www.theoldglobe.org.
Cast members also include Chad Burris, Gerard Canonico, Sam Gravitte, Emily Schultheis, Daniel Sovich, Libby Winters, Matthew C. Yee, Danny Lindgren and Alisa Melendez.