Review by Laurel Humes of “Almost Heaven”: Covedale Theatre
John Denver fans, hereâ€™s your show: â€œAlmost Heavenâ€ at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts.
Nearly 30 of Denverâ€™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 Denverâ€™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 â€“ the assassinations in the 1960s, the Vietnam War and the hippie movement.
Denverâ€™s folk-singing start was with the Mitchell Trio, known for satirical songs that criticized current events. So â€œDraft Dodger Rag,â€ with some clever choreography, is in the show, along with the Denver-penned â€œI Wish I Could Have Been There (Woodstock).â€
Especially poignant is 1971â€™s â€œTake Me Home, Country Roads,â€ performed in front of images of Vietnam soldiers.
The focus in the second act is more personal: Denverâ€™s marriage (â€œAnnieâ€™s Songâ€) and then divorce; move to Colorado (â€œRocky Mountain Highâ€), and even a drunk driving charge.
What I had forgotten (okay, I Googled!) was Denverâ€™s commitment to the causes of world hunger and ecology. The rousing performance of â€œCalypso,â€ an ode to Jacques Cousteau, is backed by video images of the exploration ship.
Covedaleâ€™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 itâ€™s muted, and Sweeney takes over. That could have been scary, the actor next to the icon. But Sweeneyâ€™s performance is especially strong here.
Brett Bowlingâ€™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.
Hereâ€™s a first: director Tim Perrino is so in love with â€œAlmost Heavenâ€ that he and his guitar take the stage toward the end to join the company in â€œIâ€™d Rather Be a Cowboy.â€ The temptation to sing along is shared by the audience, so donâ€™t be surprised if you hear your seat-mates â€“ or yourself.
â€œAlmost Heaven: the Songs of John Denverâ€ runs through March 10 at the Covedale Center, 4990 Glenway Ave. Tickets are available at www.clpshows.orgor 513-241-6550.