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A CurtainUp Review
Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver
By Elyse Sommer
For Denver fans -- and given his long concert career, numerous gold and platinum recordings and prestigious music and writing awards, this is a sizeable constituency -- the chance to hear this enthusiastic rendering of prime Denver tunes is a treat. But, while Denver's brand of musical poetry is pleasantly enjoyable, non-Denverites are less likely to recognize as many songs as audiences at Jersey Boys, or at It Ain't Nothing But the Blues, Hank William: Lost Highways and Love Janis (see links below) -- the latter three shows, like Almost Heaven, directed by Randal Myler and illustrating his deft touch for musical history revues. Though Myler uses the same basic formula as he has in the past, neither he or the show's conceptualizer and producer, Harold Thau, have found a way to give this songbook sufficient theatrical trappings for it to call itself either a book musical or a revue.
The book elements are cobweb thin and not nearly as enlightening and interesting as the producer's notes included in my press kit but not the program. What those notes do underscore is that for this to work as a song-driven musical biography, it needs a separate narrator instead of having the Denver character step out of his nameless ensemble group occasionally. Since this is all about Denver and his reaching for heaven, it doesn't make theatrical sense to have Newman's Denver just another ensemble singer who, except for being likeable and very vaguely resembling his role model during his early years, doesn't stand out from the group either as its star singer or personality.
Kelly Tighe's set consists of a bare stage with a platform separating performers and band and a backup screen on which to project pictures of various historic events that informed Denvers' songs as well as images of his own photos of the great outdoors he loved. This platform is used mainly to give the singers a chance to regroup and to sit rather than just stand around when one or two singers are in the spotlight. None of this regrouping provides the dynamic theatricality that's desperately needed.
While there's no shortage of projected images to offset the sluggish pacing on stage, even the steady flow of photographs lacks the freshness to differentiate them from any other pictorial overview of the 60s and 70s. Denver's nature photographs are quite handsome but they do little to deepen Denver's characterization.
Tobin Ost, whose inventive costumes were one of the few assets in Brooklyn, the Musical, has here dressed the singers in attractive but not especially distinctive denims. Fortunately the performers are good looking enough without much costuming help and, as already said, all sing well. The almost non-existent story line, makes few demands on their acting abilities.
To be fair, the Denver enthusiasts at the matinee I attended were more than pleased. The face of the woman sitting next to me was bathed in joyful smiles. She tapped her feet and clapped ecstatically and was not too different from Jennifer Allen's versions of a Denver fan who several times introduces a song by reading a fan letter. Another letter writer, Lee Morgan, represents a concert goer who disapproved of Denver's anti-war songs. As staged and performed, Almost Heaven, would be more appropriate at the Beacon Hotel which specializes in concerts and is located just a few blocks south of the Promenade which, in its more prestigious past, has launched many memorable theater pieces.
LINKS TO OTHER RANDAL MYLER MUSICALS REVIEWED
It Ain't Nothing But the Blues
Hank Williams: Lost Highway
Love, Janis (Janis Joplin)