By Jessica Derschowitz
September 05, 2019 at 02:10 PM EDT
Neal Preston

It’s almost time for Almost Famous’ tour bus to ride again.

A musical adaptation of Cameron Crowe’s beloved semi-autobiographical film is about to begin performances in Crowe’s native San Diego, and EW has the first look at the cast in character. The photos, fittingly, were shot by famed photographer Neal Preston, who also worked with Crowe on the 2000 film and captured the memorable in-front-of-the-bus photo seen in the movie. (We dare you to look at that photo of everyone on the tour bus and not start singing “Tiny Dancer” to yourself immediately.)

It’s a story with music already set in its bones — a teenaged journalist coming of age in the early ‘70s as he follows a band on tour for a magazine story — and Crowe says he wanted to keep that feeling, that love of music and how music can make us feel, as the film made its way to the stage.

Neal Preston

“The feeling of the movie was always meant to generate that kind of bubble you get into when you hear something that just transports you, and you want to stay in that place as long as you can,” Crowe tells EW. “And that was the first thing that I said to the people working on the play: let’s create an immersive environment where it’s 1973, and you are falling in love with this music and you don’t want to leave. You have to, but you ache a little bit and you want to go back there. That’s always how I felt about a great concert or piece of music. Sometimes it takes a while to grow on you and then you can’t imagine a world without it.”

Crowe has been hands-on in bringing the story to the stage, writing the musical’s book and co-writing lyrics with Tony and Pulitzer winner Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) — while he admits there was a “bit of a learning curve” in working on those parts of crafting a musical, he was also able to draw from his personal experiences that inspired the film in the first place.

“I wanted to go back to the original source material, my family and everything that was happening in 1973 and before — just to go back to those feelings,” he explains. “I’ve kept diaries and journals and mixtapes and stuff like that, all my notes and everything. Plus all that stuff is just still so vivid to me. … So it just felt like the whole thing could be like going back to the roots of the whole of everything that started the story.”

Neal Preston

Crowe and director Jeremy Herrin (Noises Off, Wolf Hall) both promise that moments fans of the film would hope to see are in the musical, even if they were vague with specifics on how we might see them. The tour bus scene, notes Herrin, is an “important moment of storytelling” where William, the writer protagonist, “discovers something about himself within the song.” As for Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond’s rooftop declaration that he is a “golden god?” The director teases, “Let’s put it this way: If I was a fan coming to see it — and I regard myself as one of the biggest fans of Almost Famous the movie — if I didn’t hear that, I would be disappointed.”

“I doubt there would be anything that had a big effect on you, if you loved the movie, that you wouldn’t see present in the play either in a way you sort of expect or in a way you didn’t expect,” adds Crowe. But it’s not a glib thing, you know? it’s a very sincere kind of intimate play. It’s really taking the feeling that I will forever be grateful that the movie caught and bringing that to a live theater experience.”

The musical’s score will also evoke the era in which the story takes place, recalling songs from that period that people know and love. “We’ve taken the early ‘70s as our playground,” explains Herrin. “We’re referencing all of our favorite musicians, and Tom is using that as a launchpad to write his own stuff. So we hope that it’s a rich brew that involves songs from the period that we know and love, some of which are in the soundtrack, and new songs in that style.”

Almost Famous begins performances Sept. 13 at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater and runs through Oct. 27, with a cast that includes Colin Donnell as Russell, Casey Likes as William, Solea Pfeiffer as the enigmatic Penny Lane, Drew Gehling as singer Jeff Bebe, Anika Larsen as William’s mother Elaine, and Rob Colletti as legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (who Crowe says you could meet, hanging out in the audience in character, if you get to the theater early).

And for Herrin, the story’s celebration of music is all the more important for us to experience now. “What I’m loving about Almost Famous is, it addresses all the positive things about how music is a commonality for people, about how growing up is important, about how having integrity is important. That love is important. It feels like a really good time to celebrate all the good things in life, and that’s what we’re trying to do with the show.”

Nancee E. Lewis

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