I've never been a particular fan of John Denver, other than acknowledging that he wrote a few pleasant tunes. And despite decades living in Colorado, I've been pretty much immune to the myth of the West. My dreams are filled with cities -- Prague, London, New York -- rather than wheat fields, ranches, prairie or unending blue sky. So I don't know why I was enthralled by Almost Heaven: Songs and Stories of John Denver, a compendium of John Denver's songs -- laughing like mad as the cast sang about "Grandma's Feather Bed," and being moved to tears by the love song "For You" and stirred to the soul by "Wild Montana Skies."
There are several possibilities. One is that John Denver was a far better songwright than most of us understood. Certainly his lyrics are heartfelt, if sometimes simplistic, even flat, and the evening is full of catchy rhythms and melodies that stay with you. The second possibility is that Jeff Waxman's vocal arrangements and musical direction make the songs sound more sophisticated than they are. However, it seems to me that even the best musical arranger has to have something to work with. It doesn't hurt that director Randal Myler, who was also responsible for the Broadway show "It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues," has assembled a group of terrific musicians and a winning and uniformly strong cast. Each member brings a distinct and interesting sensibility to the music. Darlene Bel Grayson is a knockout, with a strong, warm voice and presence, and hypnotically expressive hands. She communicates pure joy in "Fly Away" and playful humor in "Grandma's Feather Bed" -- which begins with mock seriousness and ends as an all-out stomp. Lisa Asher, too, has a fine voice, and she brings power and emotion to everything she sings, particularly "Sunshine on My Shoulder." With his eloquent baritone and kindly manner, Michael Lanning anchors the evening. He was particularly moving as he began the second act singing "This Old Guitar" and ended, quietly -- and seeming to speak to each of us in the audience individually -- with "I love to sing my songs for you."
Jim Newman plays John Denver. He has all the composer's wide-grinned, country-boy charm -- though he's sexier, and I think he actually sings better. Annie Golden and Marsh Hanson each bring an intense originality to the stage. Golden has a voice that seems to originate in her head; it can sound lyrical or enameled at will. She's both fragile and steely. When, voice quavering, she portrays a lovestruck fan who's going through a hard time and asks John Denver to think of her while he's singing at his next concert, it should be icky and sentimental, but it's not. She seems to embody every unfulfilled yearning that every one of us harbors. As for Marsh Hanson, he's so transparently in love with music that it's scary. Every emotion he feels is reflected on his face, unmediated. Sometimes you think he's going right over the top. At other moments, his goofy glee is infectious. And when the man sings a love song in that rich, fluid baritone, watch out, because it'll melt your heart.
What else gives this evening its unexpected resonance? Almost Heaven is intelligently written and directed, and the production values -- Dawn Chiang's lighting, Kevin Copenhaver's costumes and Robert Mark Morgan's set -- are impeccable. A large screen at the back of the stage shows evocative stills and, later, gorgeous, rushing Colorado scenes. "Take Me Home, Country Roads" acquires a whole new meaning when it's juxtaposed with photographs of terrifyingly young soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam. And two songs, "Matthew" and "Let Us Begin," have been amalgamated in a way that speaks more eloquently of love, land and the terrible waste that war represents than anything I've heard in a while. John Denver died in a plane crash in 1997. Almost Heaven doesn't meet the event head-on but comes at it sideways, and beautifully.
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So here was this guy with a melon-shaped smile, who wrote some pretty songs and was a mildly embarrassing Colorado star, and by placing him in the context of his times -- the rebellious '60s and early '70s, the greedy '80s and the indifferent '90s -- and giving his songs a skillful showcase, Myler and Waxman have shown us who he really was: a man who loved the West and did his work the best he could, someone who represented the free-souled and generous-hearted ideal that America has of herself -- and very occasionally lives up to.