There is very little anyone or anything can do to stop an idea whose time has come. In the world of music, styles, beats, tempos, and sounds are always changing in search that illusive quest for personal expression, in the hope that others will hear the same drumbeat and march together.
Young music fans always searching that ‘perfect wave’ metaphor, eschewed the music of the 1940’s and the ‘50’s, to climb aboard a new wave of music that produced the British invasion of the 60’s with “The Beatles”, the “Rolling Stones”, and “Led Zeppelin”, as well as American bands and performers. The envelope was pushed even further in the 70’s with the arrival of the Rock & Roll era, followed by the music and lyrics of ‘hard rock’ and ‘heavy metal’ groups.
The world premiere musical comedy now performing at The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley stage is a production that is close to the hearts of San Diegans. It’s a success story, by and about, Cameron Crowe, a native son and an Academy Award winning screenwriter/lyricist. Crowe, is a multi-award winning journalist turned, playwright, producer and director of stage, screen and television projects.
For theatre-goers of a certain age, who may not be familiar with the evolution of pop music from the era of American Bandstand and host Dick Clark, who was often referred to as the oldest teenager in America back in the 1950’s; “Almost Famous”, the musical, is based on the Paramount Pictures and Columbia Pictures motion picture written by Cameron Crowe, in 2000 is currently being presented by special arrangement with Lia Vollack, Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, and John Johnson.
The story in short, begins in San Diego in 1973 at the home of idealistic 15-year old William Miller (a terrific Casey Likes), as an aspiring music journalist wanna-be. When Rolling Stone magazine hires him to go on the road with an up and coming band – the magazine editor hired him over the telephone from the New York City office – without meeting face to face or verifying his age.
William is thrust into the rock-and-roll circus, where his love of music, his longing for friendship, and his integrity as a young writer will eventually be tested; big time. It’s the characters William meets and their stories that fuel the up and down moments so prevalent in show business biographical stories about performers.
The Old Globe Theatre is a state-of-the-art performing venue whose tool box is loaded with special effects capabilities. When the ‘dream team’ swings into action the promise of a successful production becomes a reality that frankly just knocks the socks off the audience.
The talented cast of twenty-one actors, singers, and dancers explode on stage, thanks to the brilliant choreography of Lorin Latarro and her sensational ensemble, who perform an obbligato of high octane dance numbers and movements that at times seem to defy gravity. It’s also breathtaking stage magic when everyone is in their on-stage moments. And listening to three-part harmony beautifully executed just makes this entire production soar.
There are twenty-eight music numbers and songs that grab the somewhat aging audience who are magically transported back to their youth. I caught some in the audience wiping theirs eyes when they thought no one was looking. Nostalgia is a powerful agent in show business. When it’s applied properly as it is in this production, kudos go to the entire company of performers and the technical team for eliciting those emotions.
Among the show’s many cleverly written lyrics and music are: the haunting “Morocco”, sung by Penny Lane (a beautiful, exotic, Solea Pfeiffer) and the delightful Casey Likes, as William, along with another big number “Everybody’s Coming Together”, featuring Stillwater, Penny Lane, and the ensemble. Also, in Act II, the 11-O’clock spot number, “There’s a New Day Coming” by the full company is a solid winner.
There’s really not a weak link in this outstanding company of performers but listing everyone is a space limiting issue. However, there are always standouts and this excellent production is no exception. Colin Donnell as Russell Hammond displays his acting chops throughout, and especially in his scenes with Penny Lane, William and his groupie followers.
Anika Larsen delivers strong support as Elaine Miller, William’s down-to-earth school teacher Mom. Rob Colletti as the real life legendary music critic Lester Bangs, turns in a little gem of a performance, complete with dialogue peppered with language that would make a stevedore blush. Also, f-bombs are no strangers in the dressing rooms of Rock and Heavy Metal band members so leave grandma and the kiddies at home.
I saved the best for last. Enough cannot be said in praise of the brilliantly executed staging by director Jeremy Herrin, who seamlessly transferred his personal vision to his inspired cast as he put them through their paces with no one missing a beat. “Almost Famous” is a visually stunning production to watch as this real life story unfolds with such flair, style and nuance.
The technical department creative team led by director Herrin includes: Scenic Designer Derek McLane who delivers an eye-popping set that is a feast for the eyes, along with Natasha Katz‘s lighting design that allows the audience just the right amount of light to see and appreciate the costumes of Designer David Zinn, The sound is designed by Peter Hylenski. Tom Kitt also performed the Orchestrations and Arrangements. Bryan Perri is the Musical Director, and Daniel Green is the Associate Music Director.
The Big Three of the production: Cameron Crowe, Tom Kitt and Jeremy Herrin, have their eyes focused on their San Diego love child at the moment, but I suspect, according to the buzz I heard during intermission, this delightful puppy may have Broadway in its crosshairs sometime next year.
Broadway producers, however, constantly check box office receipts and their wristwatches. Theatre going tourists to New York City are the mother’s milk of longevity and the method of recouping those exorbitant production costs. It’s been my experience that audiences are more comfortable with musicals that run no longer than two hours plus 10 minutes. So my one caveat would be to trim this otherwise sensational production from the two hours plus 45 minutes when I attended to a more audience-friendly running time when it opens on Broadway.
Thanks to Scott and Ellie Van Every of Long Beach, CA I had the opportunity to briefly chat with their friend Pennie Trumbull, the real-life Penny Lane of Cameron Crowe’s movie and now this musical. I asked her how she felt watching her actress avatar Solea Pfeiffer, perform as her? And what memories did the show tonight bring back for her. “I loved the show, she said. It’s wonderful to relive the experience again, adding “the young girl playing me is terrific. What did you think of the show?” she said. Caught off guard, I smiled and meekly replied that my review comes out Wednesday, October 2nd. Rules and traditions of the ‘critic trade’ can be a bit too restrictive at times. However, I give myself permission from time to time to meet and greet without having any guilt feeling.
“Almost Famous” performs at San Diego’s the Old Globe Theatre on the Shiley Stage and runs through October 27, 2019. It’s a Must See Show!