Review by Doug Iden of ‘Almost Heaven”: Covedale Theatre
“Sunshine on my Shoulders Makes Me Happy” is one of the most popular songs written by John Denver and, in his words, best sums up the production Almost Heavennow showing at the Covedale Theater. If you like John Denver, you will like this show. If you don’t like John Denver, well…..
This is a classic Broadway Review which is a compilation of themed songs tied together by a gossamer-thin thread of a story. The theme here is the music, lyrics and life of John Denver. The show sits mid-point between a plotted play and a musical concert, sometimes sliding towards the story but, more often, towards the music. The story, brief as it is, tells Denver’s life history as a way to segue into the music which is presented chronologically as he wrote it. His story is mostly sanitized and uplifting but there is mention of his drinking and contentious divorce from his wife Annie.
Characteristic of many Reviews, there are no characters per se. All seven singer/actors are identified as “company”, playing different parts throughout the show but, mostly, singing. However, one “company” character (Liam Sweeney) does represent Denver and tells most of his story. Sweeney “portrays” Denver as a personable, enthusiastic character, has a good singing voice and sports a pseudo-Denver haircut to boot. The other six singers (Brian Anderson, Kelsey Rose Cummings, Elaine Diehl, Annie Schneider, Jamie Steele and Kyle Taylor) alternate between doing solos, duets, singing in the chorus and acting various parts.
There are a number of musical highlights in the show starting with Cummings singing “Rhymes and Reasons”, “I Guess I’d Rather Be in Colorado” and “I’m Sorry”. Cummings has an excellent voice for Denver’s music. Sweeney displays a laconic style with “Thank God, I’m a Country Boy” and a brief but excellent duet with Cummings featuring “Annie’s Song”. Taylor (most recently seen at the Carnegie inHunchback of Notre Dame) excels in “Country Roads”. Schneider nailed my personal favorite Denver song “Leaving on a Jet Plane”. With a decidedly country/western style, Diehl sang the haunting “Fly Away” and Steele led the chorus in the rambunctious homage to Jacques Cousteau in “Calypso” which ends the first act.
The second act opens with “Country Boy” featuring a variety of folksy musical instruments including a washboard, Jew’s harp and spoons. Several of the singers also accompanied themselves on guitars. Another interesting moment was “Grandma’s Feather Bed” using an upright feather bed prop with various actors popping up from the bed. Director Tim Perino also makes an appearance as a singer. The show ends with the entire chorus belting Denver’s anthem “Rocky Mountain High”.
Keyboard/Conductor Greg Dastillung leads the on-stage band of Aaron Almashy, Geoff Pittman, Hannah Mueller, Jan Diehl and George Bruce while leading the singers. The opening number was a little rocky but the cast and the band warmed up to the music.
Brett Bowling’s set design was apropos with a mountain cabin on the side with the sign “Welcome to the Rocky Mountains”. A video screen was flanked with totem poles. Snow covered evergreens appeared on both wings with a surrealistic image of a mounting bridging the two wings across the top of the stage. Caren Brady’s costumes were simple but appropriate. The women wore dresses with cowboy boots and the men had blue jeans and shirts. Sweeney (as Denver) wore a buckskin jacket.
One interesting plot approach is the use of letters (real ones, I presume) which the “company” frequently reads which helps move the story along and highlights significant times in Denver’s life. Another device is the use of pictures projected onto a large screen at the back of the stage. The pictures show news elements (Vietnam protests, for example), pictures of Denver’s family and albums and many scenic views. Sometimes the pictures are augmented by dialogue, but often stand alone. The pictures are, of course, queued to events displayed through the plot or the music onstage.
John Denver’s music and lyrics represented a unique voice and a personal view of his world. The music floated between prevailing genres of the day including folk, rock, country and western, protest and traditional popular songs. His music, often criticized as corny and irrelevant, was genuine and always filled with joy and his palette was huge, including deeply personal songs, raucous “how-downs”, protest melodies, love songs and almost spiritual anthems to the great outdoors. His canvass encompassed the eastern wilds of West Virginia to the sweeping vistas of the mountain west to an exhilarating exploration of the sea with Jacques Cousteau. But, unlike many other self-absorbed, angst-driven composer/lyricists of the day, Denver’s music transcended the maudlin and painted a universal image of his exhilarating world. His songs were simple but never simplistic.
Overall, I found the production competent, enthusiastic, joyful and entertaining. There’s a lot to be said for a show that’s entertaining.
So, “Country Roads, Take Me Home to the Place I Belong, Covedale Theater, West Side Mama, Take me Home”. Almost Heaven plays through March 10.