Seeing “Almost Heaven,” will bring recollections of John Denver’s backstory.
Denver’s music was considered to be more or less middle-of-the-road if not downright conservative in the wake of rising stars like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.
This issue is confronted early in the latest jukebox boomer music revival, “Almost Heaven-John Denver’s America,” at The Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN..
The popular singer/songwriter eventually emerged as the nascent voice of the environmental movement with songs like “Calypso” that championed the work of Jacques Cousteau, as well as “Rocky Mountain High,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Wild Montana Skies” and “Sunshine on My Shoulders.” They unabashedly and exuberantly celebrated the magnificence and simple beauty of nature.
During the late sixties and early seventies’ Vietnam era, Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. grew up on or near military bases throughout the U.S. and abroad as the son of a U.S. Air Force pilot. This no doubt left the young man, later rebranding himself as John Denver, conflicted during the anti-war period.
In what was apparently an effort to show solidarity with his generation, Denver covered Phil Ochs’ “Draft Dodger Rag” with lyrics that explain,” I believe in God and Senator Dodd and a-keepin’ old Castro down. ” But he goes on to humorously list all of the reasons why he cannot serve.
Steven Romero Schaeffer, the narrative voice of Denver in this production, tells us that Denver was actually excused from military service due to the loss of two toes in a childhood accident.
Perhaps as another attempt to connect with his peers, Denver penned “I Wish …” an ode to the musical festival extravaganza that came to be known as Woodstock. He sings “I wish I could have been there on the highway…”
To me this song is similar to “Garden Party” by Ricky Nelson who suffered from a similar outsider status.
Denver did score a huge hit when the folk trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, recorded “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” a ballad he wrote recounting the pain and torment of lovers whose life circumstances require them to be periodically separated.
Then, folk music’s popularity waned. However, in spite of a cultural atmosphere exuding a more edgy musical sound, Denver proved there was a market for sentimentality with “Goodbye Again.”
And of course, “Annie’s Song” mixes romantic love with images of nature (“You fill up my senses like a night in the forest…” ) in what might be the piece best illustrating the songwriter’s overall sensibilities.
Somehow Denver was not really a part of the Carly Simon, James Taylor, Carole King crowd. But he did snuggle into that niche of quiet balladeers who gained popularity in the early seventies where I think he found more acceptance.
Regarding this biographical production of “Almost Heaven,” Schaeffer has a very good singing voice and the requisite boyishly good looks reminiscent of Denver to be the point person, but he does not really share the original singer’s vocal quality.
What Schaeffer lacks is made up primarily by Andrew Mueller who takes the lead in “For You,” and “Rocky Mountain High.” Out of everyone on stage he seems to embody the spirit of Denver and the tonality of the original’s voice. Frankly I would have been content to listen to a concert called, “Mueller Sings Denver.”
Tommy Malouf, featured in “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” also has the chops but seemed a bit tentative, even self-conscious at times. However his vocal range and quality hit the mark on several occasions. With a little more confidence he can easily rival Mueller and raise the overall performance.
The incomparable Sara Geist (who could probably sing the phone book and make it sound beautiful) as well as the melodic soprano Shannon McEldowney are included for variety. But in my mind, they add confusion as to what this production is intended to be.
I would describe “Almost Heaven” as more of an ensemble concert with a few biographical introductions. It was somewhat of a disappointment for me as it does not offer a coherent storyline in the style of “Jersey Boys” or “Beautiful.” In that way it is neither a concert nor a play.
As for having concert status, these five spectacular singers (who also play guitar, banjo, and mandolin) have great technical skill but could use a bit more soul.
After all, Denver was known for, and indeed at times, criticized for over-the-top exuberance. He was full of enthusiasm much like your favorite camp counselor conducting a fireside sing-a-long or Peter Seeger at a political rally. Even his most introspective songs were belted out like a cry to be understood.
Some of the best moments here are the ensemble numbers. These work because it takes several people to match the energy of one John Denver. Also, the harmonies and vocal arrangements of Jeff Waxman are spot-on, aided by the musical direction of William Underwood with musicians Malcolm Ruhl and Alison Tatum.
This is a sizable, attractive and comfortable venue. The scenic proscenium arch created by Ann Davis is a stunning monochromatic bower of white tree branches. It is reminiscent of Colorado aspens fabricated like Chinese paper cuttings that provide an appropriate stylized feeling of nature.
The finale number in which the entire cast moves completely downstage was very powerful and made me wish they had done most if not all of the presentation at the front of this most ample thrust. It would have added more personal interaction with the audience.
There are also a very enjoyable fiddle solo and harmonica solo which could be made more prominent.
As for the sound, again I feel this was designed from a theatrical point-of-view using forehead mics which are popular in musical theater but generally do not have much “presence” providing a more remote and soft sound.
These performances might have benefited from microphones that wrap in front of the singer’s mouth or by using more traditional microphones on stands, concert style.
My cynical self says this production by Harold Thau is designed as an exploitation of Denver’s popularity rather than a fully conceived theatrical experience.
But as a John Denver fan, I say “Who cares?” What the heck, this is still an opportunity to enjoy and celebrate the music of a man who seemed to unabashedly celebrate the world around him and the experience he was having exploring life. He did this with a naiveté that caused him some criticism but he was true to his boyish nature right up to his untimely end.
DETAILS: “Almost Heaven – John Denver’s America” is at The Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster, IN, through March 22, 2020. Running time: 105 minutes with one intermission. For tickets and other information call (219)836-3255 or visit TheatreAtTheCenter.
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