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The Waitress star shows off his comedic side as a preening rocker
"Let's talk about musical adaptations of movies!" Drew Gehling exclaims, and why not? They have made up most of his recent stage career. In 2016, he originated the role of goofy ob-gyn Dr. Pomatter in Waitress on Broadway, followed by his turn as a reporter romancing a princess in Roman Holiday in San Francisco in 2017. The next year he was an accidental president in Dave in Washington, D.C. and in 2019 in San Diego, he transformed into a hilariously egotistical rocker for Almost Famous, which transferred to Broadway's Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre earlier this fall.
After performing in a few musicals that petered out on the way to New York and surviving the 18-month pandemic-induced shutdown, Gehling is giddy to be back on Broadway, especially in a veritable crowd-pleaser. Based on Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical 2000 film and featuring both new and classic rock songs, Almost Famous follows a teenage music journalist (newcomer Casey Likes) as he goes on tour with Stillwater, a fictional up-and-coming band in 1973. Gehling is Jeff Bebe, the narcissistic front man. Considering Gehling was the lead singer of a ska band as a teen in Greensboro, North Carolina and alternated between rocking out and performing in his high school's musicals, you could say he's been preparing for Almost Famous his entire life.
Gehling vividly remembers the first time he saw the movie, when he was working at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in 2003. "It was the first time I ever heard 'Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,' which is now one of my favorite Elton John songs," he says. "It stuck with me because everything about the film represented the B-sides—songs that you didn't necessarily know immediately, but upon further research you really got to go deep into the essence of these bands."
Jason Lee played Jeff Bebe in the film, a performance Gehling calls "brilliant... he's able to be such a misanthrope yet also deeply touching and human." However, like all the roles he's played on stage that were originated by other actors on screen, Gehling didn't want to do an impression or parody; he's putting his own stamp on the part. He says the movie "is a beautiful and wonderful thing that people have a lot of attachment to and a lot of love for, but it's not the same thing" as the musical. "They exist in completely different worlds and completely different ways and complement each other."
In both the movie and the musical (which features a book by Crowe and songs by Crowe and Tony winner Tom Kitt), Jeff is resentful that the sexy, brooding guitarist, Russell Hammond (Chris Wood) is becoming the face of the group. But while Lee made Jeff angry, Gehling leans into the lighter side of the character as he "peacocks around the stage like a fool." His '70s rocker look—outrageous outfits designed by David Zinn and a flowing wig created by Luc Verschueren—helped him find Jeff's essence. Gehling even named the wig—she's called Vanessa. "She's very temperamental," he jokes. "I'm jumping and moving constantly, so I spend half the show just pulling her out of my mouth. I put those boots and jeans on, and that wig goes on my head and the entire way I carry myself changes. Jeff is a person who leads with his hips and lets his hair flow in the breeze and is always aware that that's happening."
Even though Jeff and Russell have different goals for the band, they share history and chemistry. That camaraderie carried over to Gehling and Wood's relationship as they made music together in rehearsals. "We effectively existed as a band from the moment we started working," Gehling says, adding that one time, just for fun, they were singing Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man" (which underscores a scene in the movie), and Crowe liked it so much he put it in the show.
Although there are other classic tunes in the musical, including Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" and Led Zeppelin's "Ramble On," Gehling's favorite number to perform is new: "I Come at Night." It's a comedic scene, with the band acting crazy and cracking each other up. "That's one of those key moments in the show where we get to not only play a song that really kicks, we also get to goof around and be the idiots that we are," he says. Finally in Almost Famous, Gehling has found a character that, like him, is a rocker with a funny side.
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Almost Famous. Go here to browse all theatre, dance and music offers.
Almost Famous is also frequently available at the TKTS Booths.
Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre at @PataphysicalSci. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.