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A CurtainUp Review
Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver

This old guitar taught me to sing a love song,
It showed me how to laugh and how to cry.
It introduced me to some friends of mine
And brightend up some days.
It helped me make it through some lonely nights.
What a friend to have on a cold and lonely night.
--- from "This Old Guitar," one of the 29 songs by John Denver comprising this Denver concert masquerading as a musical.

Jim Newman  in Almost Heaven
Jim Newman
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Let's start by getting one thing straight. It's billed as a musical and the title, Almost Heavenly, does indicate that this is what we can expect. But the show that just opened at the Promenade on Manhattan's upper West Side is definitely not a musical, not if you view a plot or book as integral to a musical. Granted, there are bits of biographical information supplied by Jim Newman who plays the alter-ego of John Denver, the man who's the foundation stone for Harold Thau's concept. What defines this show's genre, however, is the title's tag line: Songs of John Denver. In short, what you get is a concert of twenty-nine songs by the popular guitar strumming folk singer and songwriter (1943-1997) delivered by an ensemble and orchestra, each made up of five first-rate musicians.

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.

It Ain't Nothing But the Blues
Hank Williams: Lost Highway
Love, Janis (Janis Joplin)

Conceived by Harold Thau and (according to the press release and script though not in the program) adapted by Peter Glazer from Denver's autobiography, Take Me Home)
Directed by Randal Myler
Cast: Jennifer Allen, Terry Burrell, Valisia Lekae Little, Lee Morgan, Jim Newman and Nicholas Rodriguez
Orchestrations & vocal arrangements: Jeff Waxman
Music Coordinator: John Miller

Scenic Design: Kelly Tighe,
Costume Design: Tobin Ost
Lighting Design: Don Darnutzer
Sound Design: Lewis Mead
Projection Adviser: Jan Hartley
Musical Director & Additional Arrangements: Charlie Alterman
Musicians: Chis Biesterfeldt, guitar; Steve Count, bass; Bob Green, fiddle, mandolin, acoustic guitar; Frank Pagano, percussion

Running time: 2 hours, includes 1 intermission

From 10/28/05; opening 11/0905--closing 12/31/05 after 12 previews and 61 regular performances.
Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. Tickets: l
Tickets: $51.25-$69.50. Same-day general rush tickets (2 tkt limit) available for $26.25 at Box Office, beginning at noon daily
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on October 5th matinee press performance
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • All of My Memories/ Jim, Lee and Company
  • For Bobbie/ Nicholas, Lee, Jim
  • Rhymes and Reasons/ Valisia
  • Draft Dodger Rag/ Lee
  • I Wish I Could've Been There (Woodstock) / Jim and Company
  • Take Me Home, Country Roads / Jennifer and Company
  • Fly Away/ Terry
  • I Guess He'd Rather Be in Colorado/ Tery, Jennifer, Valisia
  • Rocky Mountain High/ Lee and Company
  • Matthew/ Jim
  • Let Us Begin (What Are We Making Weapons For?) / Nicholas and Terry
  • Calypso/ Nicholas and Company
Act Two
  • This Old Guitar/ Lee and Jim
  • Thank God I'm a Country Boy/ Jim
  • Grandma's Feather Bed / Company
  • Annie's Song / Jennifer
  • Goodbye Again/ Jim and Jennifer
  • . How Can I Leave You Again / Lee and Terry
  • Back Home Again / Nicholas and Valisia
  • Leaving on a Jet Plane/ Terry and Company
  • For You / Nicholas
  • I'm Sorry / Jennifer
  • Sunshine on My Shoulders / Valisia and Company
  • Looking for Space / Jim
  • Wild Montana Skies / Jennifer. Tern. Valisia
  • Songs Of / Lee and Company
  • Poems, Prayers and Promises/ Terry, Jim and Company
  • Yellowstone/Company
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