If you are a loyal and nostalgic fan of John Denver’s music, by all means head to Annapolis and see the Infinity Theatre Company’s production of the new jukebox musical Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver.
The ensemble is versatile, energetic and talented, the non-singing musicians are excellent, the arrangements are fine, and the show, unlike so many revues (which is what a lot of jukebox musicals really are), doesn’t drag on past the “when is this thing going to end?” point: it’s about an hour and a half. The theater itself (the home of The Children’s Theater of Annapolis) is comfortable and attractive—inside, anyway—and everything is thoroughly professional.
There is even a terrific restaurant nearby: the Broadneck Grill, which is worth the drive from D.C. all by itself. Try the jalapeno poppers and the crab cakes, which are the best I’ve had since Duke Ziebert’s closed.
But whatever you do, don’t read the rest of this review.
For Almost Heaven does not represent itself as a concert, but as theater, and judged as theater, to call it a mess is an insult to messes.
I usually don’t read director’s notes in programs before a performance, in part because so few directors can write them competently, but mostly because they tend to make me dread the production by explaining the alleged “concept.” If a show can’t make clear what it is trying to say and portray without a written guide, it has been botched, and there’s no way around it.
Almost Heaver: Songs of John Denver
closes July 28, 2016
Details and tickets
This production had its pre-programmed-to-fawn-over-it audience asking each other, during intermission, what the hell was going on, with questions like “Why did that angry guy in the fatigues shoot that gun? What was he aiming at? Was that supposed to be Lee Harvey Oswald?”
I still can’t answer that one, but the ridiculously muddled book and staging are somewhat explained, though not justified, by the director/ artistic director’s notes, which tell us that “Infinity’s production casts the company as different sides of Denver’s unique persona…this persona is placed in a mystical concert on the edge of reality, bordering the afterlife itself.”
This, I suppose, is supposed to explain why the character (James Bock) who is wearing the John Denver/Cousin Oliver wig and the wire-rimmed glasses periodically vanishes while one of the other singer/instrumentalists—notably the very-un-Denver-like Austin Wayne Price, who sounds more like John Denver than anyone else— tackles a song that is out of Bock’s range. The program’s pompous gibberish still doesn’t explain that angry, troubled guy (Travis Artz) in the fatigues, who at one point reads out loud a fairly unremarkable letter from a female fan and gets all choked up over it. Is he supposed to be John Denver too? AND WHO WAS HE SHOOTING THAT GUN AT???
Another puzzling presence is “Annie,” played by the hippie-garbed Sarah Goldstein. Annie was Denver’s first wife, and we learn that they divorced, that “John” feels bad about it, and nothing else. Meanwhile, Goldstein, who has great presence and a boffo contralto belt, grins distractingly and sings some of Denver’s songs. Wait, is she also a side of Denver’s unique persona? His wife was a side of his persona? He had a female side? I’m so confused!
What passes for a plot are random factoids and fleeting hints at underlying conflict that vanish as soon as there are dropped. “What are your feelings about those two DUI arrests?,” the other cast members (or maybe the other sides of Denver’s unique persona…it’s impossible to tell) ask Cousin Oliver at one point, for example.
Ah HA! Now we’re getting somewhere, I thought. Denver fought depression and alcoholism much of his life, and now we’re going to finally get beneath…but no. “John” just looked blank, didn’t answer the question, and it was time for another song.
At what I gather was some kind of a climax, Bock meandered across the stage, pausing at each of the four microphone stands planted there, and tried to set the world record for pointless blather, saying—I can’t vouch for exact accuracy here—“I think life is just wonderful. I really do. Really. It is.”
Shut up and sing, John.
The other problem with the show is its subject matter. Denver was no Carole King or Paul Simon: there are only about seven memorable songs that we identify with him, plus his best composition, “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which places him in the tragic category of singer-songwriters whose biggest hit is identified with other, more acclaimed artists. ( Mel Torme, Paul Anka, and Gene Pitney are notable members of the club.) Eight songs is pretty thin, so the 90 minutes is filled out with standard issue folk-pop Denver fare from the B-sides of his records, and, while well-sung and accompanied like everything else in the show, they are also forgettable, and had the audience members peering at their programs to see when “Calypso” would arrive.
More significantly, Almost Heaven makes you accept the hard truth that when Denver’s song are strung together in an “Up With People” -style revue, it is impossible to ignore how similar and banal they are. Sandwiched in between “The House of the Rising Sun” and “Respect” on an oldies channel, a single Denver anthem to clean air and sentiment is a welcome contrast; listening to one after another is like being bludgeoned with a baseball bat made out of American cheese.
And you suddenly realize: these songs just aren’t that great. John Denver was great. His passion and clarion tenor made what he sang seem special.
A jukebox musical should, at its best, stand as an homage to an artist. It’s a strange homage indeed that exposes that artist’s songs as essentially elevator dreck that were miraculously enhanced by its creator’s pure and viscerally thrilling voice….which is missing.
After I returned home, I immediately listened to “Annie’s Song” as John Denver sang it.
Wow. I guess Almost Heaven made me appreciate him after all.
Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver . Songs by John Denver and others. Orchestrations and vocal arrangements by Jeff Waxman . Original concept by Harold Thau .
Directed by Alan Ostroff . Featuring Travis Artz, James Bock, Sarah Goldstein, Brit Herring, Austin Wayne Price, Rhys Scheibe, Emily Woods . Musical Director: Amy Jones . Scenic Design: Diane Chun . Lighting Design: Jimmy Lawlor . Costume Design: Kristina Marie Martin . Sound Design: Wes Shippee . Production Stage Manager: Kristin Loughry, assisted by Stacey Shade . Production Manager: Carol A. Sullivan . Technical Director: Josh DeBernardi . Produced by Infinity Theatre . Reviewed by Jack Marshall.