Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 7, 2005
The legacy of the great singer/songwriters of the folk and rock era is their music and their words, and we have them on records and tapes and CDs that we can play and replay whenever we hanker for a memory of our collective past. Pop Peter, Paul, and Mary's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" in the walkman or iPod and you can relive the way it felt to hear that for the first time in the late '60s, when you were, well, however old you were back then.
So what's the point of a show like Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver? It's basically 28 Denver songs—almost all of the most famous ones, plus perhaps a dozen less well-known pieces—sung by six singer/actors (Jennifer Allen, Terry Burrell, Valisia Lekae Little, Lee Morgan, Jim Newman, and Nicholas Rodriguez), at least a third of whom probably hadn't even been born in 1969. Well, apart from the obvious value as entertainment and nostalgia—both of which are pretty high; this is a very well-mounted show—what if we learned something new about music that's so familiar that we really do just take it for granted? What if some connections could be made between a man's music and the times he lived in, helping us appreciate how different and how the same we are, three and four decades after that music first got made?
The first act of Almost Heaven, and a good bit of the second as well, accomplish just that. Director Randal Mylar, working from a conception by Harold Thau, has found a way to present Denver's songs and let them speak directly to us, for themselves. No fancy footwork; no idiotic storyline; no big overblown arrangements (musical or otherwise). Just "Take Me Home, Country Roads" and "Rocky Mountain High" and "Sunshine on My Shoulders" and all the rest, considered and performed, not as if new but as if worth our time and attention and rapture. And they are—worth it, I mean.
Jim Newman, whose stringy blond hair makes him a reasonable stand-in for Denver physically (though his voice, which is terrific, is more like James Taylor's than Denver's) is our narrator for this journey backwards in time, but happily he says very little, and pretty much everything he does say is from Denver's own pen (his autobiography, Take Me Home, is the source for most of the spoken words in this show; a lot of Denver's own photos are also incorporated here, as projected backdrops for many of the songs). Interspersed with Newman's folksy chronology are a few letters from fans and the occasional interjection from an irate critic or industry insider.
But happily almost all of Almost Heaven is songs. The first act is a panorama of Denver's work during his formative years as an artist, the '60s and early '70s. We get a glimpse of his folk period, singing with the Chad Mitchell Trio ("For Bobbie," rendered in glorious harmony by Newman, Morgan, and Rodriguez). We get a fun and gently ironic paean to the world of rock & roll that Denver was never a part of—"I Wish I Could've Been There (Woodstock)," sung by the company against a backdrop of evocative images from that legendary festival.
And then we get a look inside the soul of the man and his art: "Country Roads" as an anti-war song (a resonance that never occurred to me when, as a ten-year-old, I learned the words in elementary school: "I hear her voice / In the mornin' hours she calls me / Radio reminds me of my home far away")."Rocky Mountain High" (much more obviously) as an anthem of the wonders of nature, framed by spectacular views of the Rockies themselves:
Now he walks in quiet solitude the forests and the streams
Seeking grace in every step he takes
His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake
And, later, as a cautionary poem for those who forget how majesty stays majestic:
Now his life is full of wonder, but his heart still knows some fear
Of a simple thing he cannot comprehend
Why they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more
More people, more scars upon the land
"Calypso," with the obligatory (but glorious) images of Cousteau and that soaring, celebratory melody. Most striking to me, "Fly Away," here presented as the dreams of the city's working women, longing to break away from jobs and lives that trap them in concrete and buses and subways. Mylar puts a huge close-up of drowsy African American woman leaning against a window on her way home from work while Terry Burrell sings the chorus. Beautiful.
When I was a kid, Denver was resolutely square in my neighborhood. Today we divide people into blue states and red states. Listen to these songs and understand how wrongheaded that is.
Almost Heaven's second act is less successful in letting Denver's art communicate his spirit to us; there's a longish section in its center celebrating his love ballads in a series of solos and combinations that feel outsized and overly contemporary, forcing material like "Annie's Song" and "Leaving on a Jet Plane" into a pseudo-American Idol mode that has little to do with their creator. But the show finds itself before its end, with an aching rendition of "Poems, Prayers and Promises," and a lovely coda—Denver (on film; the last ever made of him) performing snippets of a never-finished song called "Yellowstone."
The onstage band—music director Charlie Alterman plus Chris Biesterfeldt (guitar), Steve Count (bass), Bob Green (fiddle, mandolin, acoustic guitar), and Frank Pagano (percussion)—is outstanding. The six performers each have their moments to shine; one of the brightest is Valisia Lekae Little, at her best leading the company in a rousing "Grandma's Feather Bed." But it's Jim Newman and Lee Morgan who are absolutely indispensable here, Newman affirming exuberantly "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," and Morgan finding every drop of soul in "Rocky Mountain High" and accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica in "This Old Guitar."
It's easy to drop Almost Heaven into a "jukebox musical" box and dismiss it, but that's to deny its special magic—a genuine appreciation for a man who really meant it when he said "I know he'd be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly." Such open-hearted troubadours are rare these days; I'm grateful for a chance to remember, and reconsider, this one's work: what it meant then, and what it means now.