Review by Laurel Humes of “Almost Heaven”: Covedale Theatre
John Denver fans, here’s your show: “Almost Heaven” at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts.
Nearly 30 of Denver’s songs, which he wrote and/or sang, are performed by a great 7-person company of vocalists and 6-piece band. The songs span a career that started in 1965 and tragically ended in 1997, when Denver died piloting an experimental plane.
Do not expect a clear chronology of Denver’s life and songs. There is very little explanatory dialogue, so the show may send some casual fans to Google to fill in the blanks.
But there is excellent use of a video screen that displays images to root the songs in specific times and places. This is especially effective in the first act – the assassinations in the 1960s, the Vietnam War and the hippie movement.
Denver’s folk-singing start was with the Mitchell Trio, known for satirical songs that criticized current events. So “Draft Dodger Rag,” with some clever choreography, is in the show, along with the Denver-penned “I Wish I Could Have Been There (Woodstock).”
Especially poignant is 1971’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” performed in front of images of Vietnam soldiers.
The focus in the second act is more personal: Denver’s marriage (“Annie’s Song”) and then divorce; move to Colorado (“Rocky Mountain High”), and even a drunk driving charge.
What I had forgotten (okay, I Googled!) was Denver’s commitment to the causes of world hunger and ecology. The rousing performance of “Calypso,” an ode to Jacques Cousteau, is backed by video images of the exploration ship.
Covedale’s stand-in for John Denver is Liam Sweeney, who certainly favors the singer with his lanky build, blonde hair, and sweet smile. But the songs are shared equally by the entire company of Brian Anderson, Kelsey Rose Cummings, Elaine Diehl, Annie Schneider, Jamie Steele and Kyle Taylor. All have strong and beautiful voices, and there is a good mix of solos and ensemble singing.
Only once do we see video of the actual John Denver singing. Then it’s muted, and Sweeney takes over. That could have been scary, the actor next to the icon. But Sweeney’s performance is especially strong here.
Brett Bowling’s set design is wonderfully rustic, highlighted by the exterior of a barn and blending in elements of mountains and pine trees. An especially nice touch is the framing of the video screen in Native American totems.
Here’s a first: director Tim Perrino is so in love with “Almost Heaven” that he and his guitar take the stage toward the end to join the company in “I’d Rather Be a Cowboy.” The temptation to sing along is shared by the audience, so don’t be surprised if you hear your seat-mates – or yourself.
“Almost Heaven: the Songs of John Denver” runs through March 10 at the Covedale Center, 4990 Glenway Ave. Tickets are available at www.clpshows.orgor 513-241-6550.