John Denver had few illusions about his place in pop culture: He knew he was writing songs to “make people feel good,” and that even when he sang about Vietnam or catching a Rocky Mountain high, he would forever be dubbed the “Mickey Mouse of rock and roll.” At least, that’s the message delivered by “Almost Heaven,” a winning musical revue that chronicles the MOR stalwart’s career by blending his biggest hits with tenderhearted excerpts from his autobiography. It’s hardly groundbreaking theater, but that’s not the point. Like Denver, the production’s goal is just to make us feel good.
Though it will undoubtedly be compared to other jukebox tuners, “Almost Heaven” is not aiming to squeeze Denver’s songs into a fictional plot or even go the “Jersey Boys” route by dramatizing the artist’s story. Instead, it plays like a concert with interludes, letting its six-person ensemble belt the folkie’s hits while occasionally referencing his life. But the spoken segments — which largely involve blond, mellow-voiced Jim Newman reciting choice Denver quotes — rarely aim for characterization. They’re simply mouthing salient points in this pastiche of a singer’s life and times.
Kelly Tighe’s set reflects this simplicity, using stained wood to create unadorned steps and platforms. A painted blue river snakes through the middle, leading to a fully exposed live band. Everything, the surroundings suggest, flows back to the music.
Simple as it is, the show’s approach initially leads director Randal Myler astray. He treats the first act like an anodyne revue in Branson, Mo., so that all the performers wear big plastic smiles and wrap each other in wooden embraces.
The tunes in this section — including standards like “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Rocky Mountain High” — stand up well. Myler, though, buttresses the actors’ cheesiness with visuals that distract from the music. In an effort to link Denver with some simple-minded boomer nostalgia, he and projection designer Jan Hartley splash photos of civil rights activists, JFK and Vietnam soldiers on a giant screen behind the vocalists.
That’s an ersatz political statement, since the singer’s music was practically apolitical by the era’s standards. We even hear a quote from Denver that he didn’t want to “make people angry at what (he) sang.” Trying to present him as the voice of a generation’s upheaval just undermines the easy pleasure afforded by his material.
Thankfully, the problem clears up after intermission, when the social statements — and most of the spoken segments — get traded for a rousing focus on the songwriting. From this point on, orchestral and vocal arranger Jeff Waxman guides the show with surprising, splendid arrangements. In his hands, “Grandma’s Feather Bed” turns from a hoedown number to an a capella gospel hymn, and a collection of tunes about loneliness (including the perennial “Annie’s Song”) gets blended into a searing medley of mournful harmonies.
Waxman’s take on the music invigorates the cast, who mostly rise to his challenge. Valisia Lekae Little, for instance, proves she was born to be an R&B diva by tearing the roof off with “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” transformed here into an electrifying piece of soul. Terry Burrell, whose voice sounds thin in early numbers, more than validates herself with a lush jazz reading of “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
But the show’s exhilarating high points come from Jennifer Allen, pumping raw emotion into pop heartbreakers like “I’m Sorry” and “Goodbye Again.” She often seems transported by feeling, claiming these familiar hits as descriptions of her very private pain.
What Allen exposes is the core of honest feeling that rests in Denver’s best work. Only excellent songs can support such varied interpretations and still evoke joy, and “Almost Heaven” hits that height over and over. When it finally focuses on his music, the show pays excellent tribute to an artist who remains great at making people feel good.