Monday, November 7, 2022

Music Men: Almost Famous and The Music Man

 Casey Likes and Solea Pfeiffer in Almost Famous. (Photo: Neal Preston)

Affable and well-acted and entertaining as it is, I’ve always thought that Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, from 2000, was something of a crock. Crowe’s first career was as a rock journalist; at fifteen he got to travel with The Allman Brothers. So the picture, about a San Diego teenager named William Miller whose writing impresses Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres sufficiently to persuade Fong-Torres to let him go on the road with a band called Stillwater and write a profile on them, is autobiographical. And it must be the most romanticized coming-of-age memoir any writer has ever shaped. Crowe’s baby-faced protagonist (appealingly played by Patrick Fugit) never really falls from innocence. William’s possessive mother – his only surviving parent – drops her son off at the stadium for the Stillwater show she cries after him, “Don’t take drugs!,” and she repeats her warning when she takes him to the tour bus and in every one of her hysterical phone calls. It’s a culture joke: she’s meant to represent every parent in 1973 who ever feared losing her child to the rock ‘n’ roll vampires. But William takes her seriously. He travels all over the country with Stillwater, hangs out with them between shows and with the ebullient groupies known as the BandAids, and he never even smokes a joint. Crowe seems to be looking at his own adolescence through a haze. William eventually loses his virginity, but it doesn’t seem to alter him in any way. He counsels both his hero, the band’s guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), and the leader of the BandAids, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), Russell’s girlfriend on the road and the object of William’s first serious crush, liberating her and making him into a better human being. And in the end the kid’s story gets on the cover of Rolling Stone. William is a juvenile version of the knight whose purity of heart is rewarded at last.

Crowe wrote the book for the new stage musical of Almost Famous, which premiered at the Old Globe in San Diego and has just opened on Broadway, as well as co-writing the lyrics with the composer, the prolific Tom Kitt. (Kitt was represented by two musicals in the 2021-22 New York season, Flying Over Sunset and The Visitor.) The show fades out some of the details that made William (now played by Casey Likes) so idealized in the movie. After the first act, which focuses on the wonder and excitement of a diehard fifteen-year-old rock fan who finds himself on the road with one of his favorite bands, the musical presents his coming of age in the form of his disenchantment with the behavior of his idol. And though that second act is just as unconvincing on stage as it was on film, the musical isn’t bad. Staged by the English director Jeremy Herrin against a backdrop of scaffolding and fragments of concert venues, hotel and motels (Derek McLane did the scenic and video design and Natasha Katz has lit it warmly), it’s loose and genial. Some of Kitt’s music is lovely, especially the ballads (“Morocco,” “The Night Sky’s Got Nothing on You,” “No Friends”). What it needs is a real book. Crowe is a witty writer, and you recognize lines from the movie, but there are so many songs crowded into two hours and forty minutes that the script, which is meant to capture the blurry, sensory-overload nature of William’s story, feels more truncated than experiential. Moreover, the tone of some of the scenes hasn’t been thought through, especially the ones constructed around the relationships of the members of Stillwater: Russell (Chris Wood), the vocalist Jeff (Drew Gehling), the drummer Larry (Matt Bittner) and the bassist Silent Ed (Brandon Contreras). They’re newly famous – they have a loud, derivative hit song called “Fever Dog” and they’ve just put out their third LP – and getting on each other’s nerves, especially Russell and Jeff, who are competing for the spotlight: wraith-like Jeff is supposed to be the leader of the group but Russell is sexier and more photogenic. The problem is that Crowe hasn’t made up his mind whether or not the band scenes should be parody, and Gehling overplays the comedy, so you can’t just sit back and enjoy their interactions, and you never get emotionally invested in them either.

Wood has a sweet singing voice and enough tossed-off charisma to take the stage, and as Penny, Solea Pfeiffer has a wasted-rock-princess presence that becomes more affecting as the show goes on. The second-act number Kitt has given her, “The Wind,” is far from great but she gives it a dynamic, bluesy fervency, and her exit, which Herrin has staged in a sweeping arc down and across the stage and up the aisle, is all you want it to be. But it’s Casey Likes who holds the musical together. Patrick Fugit’s understatement in the role softened William’s naiveté and wide-eyed enchantment and gave him an inchoate quality. Likes is more ebullient and funnier, and his comic timing is superb. All through the show you can feel a rock ‘n’ roll energy that’s been muted by his age and his mother’s terror and his natural modesty straining to break through. Cleverly, Likes and Herrin and the choreographer, Sarah O’Gleby, wait until the infectious, satisfying curtain call before opening the flood gates.

Anika Larsen can’t make the role of the fruitcake mother, Elaine, work. (Neither could Frances McDormand in the film.) But in the part of the fabled rock critic Lester Bangs, who encourages William’s writing and administers feverish advice to him over the phone – reminding him not to make friends with the subjects of his profile, all the while cognizant that such warnings to a teenager who finds himself in close quarters with his musical heroes are invariably useless – Rob Colletti mines his hilarious lines for all they’re worth. Bangs has invited William to call whenever he finds himself in trouble, assuring the kid that he’s always home because, like any critic navigating the turbulent waters of the rock world, he’s eternally uncool. Colletti gets Bangs’s pride in his aloofness, which has a ticklish undercurrent of martyrdom, as well as his gleeful cynicism, and every time he shows up the musical gets a shot in the arm, just as the movie did whenever Bangs surfaced in the shape of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

A handful of classic rock songs have been scattered among Kitts’s score, including, of course, “Tiny Dancer,” which ends act one. But the show errs, I think, in changing the subtext of this number. In the movie, as everyone who’s seen it no doubt remembers, the whole tour bus, including William, sings along with Elton John. It’s a rare communal moment, free of all the complications of the road, that captures their shared love of the music, and he looks blissful at being included. In the show the setting is the same, but the song comes out of nowhere, and it builds to an impassioned solo for William that seems to be about the emotional weight of all that he’s experiencing. It’s enough that Likes carries the show; he shouldn’t be asked to carry “Tiny Dancer,” too.

Hugh Jackman, with Sutton Foster and the ensemble, in "Marian the Librarian" from The Music Man (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

The hit Broadway revival of The Music Man, which is closing in January, opens with as rousing a rendition as I’ve encountered of “Rock Island,” the ingenious number that takes its rhythms from the bumpy, stop-and-start movement of a train full of traveling salesmen. (A nice touch:  we can see the cables swaying above the train car.) I love The Music Man, with its marvelous portrait of “Professor” Harold Hill, the archetypal American salesman, and its nearly perfect Meredith Willson score, and I certainly enjoyed this latest edition, though there’s a lot wrong with it. The director, Jerry Zaks, keeps going for broad comedy, which coarsens the musical and makes the gossiping ladies of River City, Iowa, a tad tiresome. He makes the men in the local school board clownish, too, though as soon as Hill (Hugh Jackman) melds them into a barbershop quartet, they redeem themselves. (Eddie Korbach, Nicholas Ward, Daniel Torres and Jessica Sheridan play the quartet.)  In River City Hill insinuates himself with the populace and sells them on the idea of buying instruments and uniforms for a boys’ band – even though he doesn’t know a damn thing about music – while courting his toughest adversary, the stiff-necked local librarian Marian Paroo (Sutton Foster), as a way of softening her up. Zaks also coaches Marie Mullen, who is quite pleasing in her first scene as Marian’s Irish mother, to ham it up. And in the scene where Marian, having fallen for Hill, waylays Charlie Cowell (Remy Auberjonois), a fellow salesman on his way to exposing the music man, Foster’s vamping looks like something out of a bad TV revue sketch.

But the central flaw is the miscasting of the two leads. Jackman is fun to watch, especially when he’s dancing, and the fact that now that he’s in his mid-fifties his singing has become quavery and he doesn’t always land on the right note isn’t of much consequence. But he doesn’t have the right kind of charisma for a salesman; you don’t believe for a moment that he could put one over on these sour, suspicious Iowans. Foster is one of my favorite musical-theatre divas, but she’s too boisterous for the character of Marian, and her voice lacks the requisite warmth and sweetness for ballads like “Goodnight, My Someone” and “My White Knight,” which has been (unfortunately) jazzed up to suit the singer. (She manages to come through in one song, though, the deathless “Till There Was You.”) In the last Broadway production of The Music Man, in 2001, which Susan Stroman directed and choreographed, Rebecca Luker played Marian, and it’s likely that no one has ever been better.  Luker died two years ago of ALS, and for those of us who were lucky enough to see her, her ghost hovers over the part. Foster was a sensational Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes, but Marian just isn’t her role.

Stroman’s version was one of the best revivals of a musical I’ve ever seen; I caught it twice with Craig Bierko in the starring role, skillfully replicating Robert Preston’s trademark approach, and then with Robert Sean Leonard, whose more vulnerable take on Harold Hill was a revelation. Warren Carlyle’s new choreography is very different from what I recall of Stroman’s, and it’s the best thing about the show. He uses a wide variety of choreographic ideas, including balletic miming in the “Ya Got Trouble” number and acrobatics in “Marian the Librarian,” which is the high point of the production. And he really shows off the talents of the kids in the cast. It turns out that Benjamin Pajak, the charming young man playing Marian’s brother Winthrop, whom Harold succeeds in coaching out of his shell, is multi-talented – he can dance and play the cornet as well as act and sing. (Has anyone ever addressed the weirdness of the relationships within the Paroo clan? Winthrop is supposed to be Marian’s brother, but they’re about fifteen years apart, and Mrs. Paroo looks old enough to be the boy’s grandmother.)

I liked Brian MacDevitt’s lighting and Santo Loquasto’s costumes, but not all of Loquasto’s scenic ideas. He incorporates some expressionistic elements in the pastoral and gymnasium scenes (like clouds that look like gigantic ball bearings) and they jar against the turn-of-the-century Midwestern setting. Zaks has the Wells Fargo wagon drawn by a horse impersonated by dancers and he uses a toy replica to show its approach, two tried and true visuals that work perfectly here. This Music Man is a mixed bag, but the musical hasn’t lost its vaudevillian energy or its congeniality.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.   

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