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Almost Heaven

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Stepping into the Promenade Theatre is currently like stepping into a time warp. Not a large one, mind you - not one that transports you back a century, or even to the late 1960s or 1970s. That would be appropriate, as the Promenade's current tenant, Almost Heaven, is about the life and music of John Denver, who glided to popularity with his western-folk-social consciousness songs during that time.

No, you'll only travel back a couple of months, to when Lennon was still playing on Broadway. A weak book, unnecessary reliance on projections, a coterie of performers almost completely incapable of evoking any sense of what made the show's subject special... It's all here. All that's missing is Yoko Ono. However, her spiritual replacement, Randal Myler, isn't much of an improvement.

Basically a jukebox musical dispenser, Myler is the man responsible for Love, Janis (about Janis Joplin), Dream a Little Dream (The Mamas and the Papas), and Hank Williams: Lost Highway (take a guess), three shows bursting with memorable pop songs and not a single noteworthy thought between them. Almost Heaven is in precisely the same non-style, a life-and-music retrospective that assumes you already know about the life, you already know about the music, and you just can't wait to part with some cash to see them come together onstage.

In his earlier shows Myler found something dramatically passable to hook his show onto - Joplin's tragic death at 27; Williams's flamboyant personality; original Papa Denny Doherty. This time around, he's not so lucky: The closest thing to a connecting thread here is Denver's simple, soft-spoken reverence for the environment and for the people and animals who share it that made Denver one of those rare people who practiced what he preached.

This does help some of his songs - "Take Me Home, Country Roads," "Rocky Mountain High," and "Sunshine on My Shoulders," among others - find the proper sense of occasion, and a foot-stamping country band (under Charlie Alterman's musical direction) gives all the songs the right basic sound. What focusing on Denver's activism doesn't do is give you any real sense of the man, the private soul always longing to stroll down some rural route outside the public eye.

As conceived by Harold Thau and adapted from Denver's autobiography Take Me Home, this must rank as the least informative songwriter-bio-show since, well, Lennon. In what passes as the narrative, Denver is divorced before you realized he was married; his son graduates from high school practically before he's born; and of Denver's 1997 death while flying a Rutan Long-EZ fiberglass airplane, scarcely a word is spoken. It's as if the show's book were arrested at a Save-the-Whales demonstration and had no understudy to take its place.

The show, then, becomes more about the public's reactions to Denver and his music than about Denver himself. There are the obligatory fan letters recited onstage, yes, but also songs that have been rethought, retuned, or reinterpreted. "Grandma's Feather Bed" is begun in a mock-oratorio style, for example, and many of the other songs' vocal arrangements (by orchestrator Jeff Waxman) are heavier, more layered, and considerably more closed-handed than was Denver's trademark. You leave the theater feeling you've heard his songs but don't know them as he intended them; one lyric from "What Are We Making Weapons For?" takes on new meaning here: "If our song is not sung as a chorus, we surely will burn."

The only cast member crackling at the proper intensity is the personable Jim Newman. Sporting blond highlights and an eerily accurate thin-lipped smile, Newman does a darn fine approximation of Denver's down-home look. If his singing voice is too resonant, too archly forceful to be mistaken for Denver's, his speaking voice carries all the right unassuming, uncertain cadences. Jennifer Allen, Terry Burrell, Valisia Lekae Little, Lee Morgan, and Nicholas Rodriguez are all powerful singers as well, but in sound and look (their retro-rugged costumes are by Tobin Ost) seem more like modern fans who've read the notes on Denver's sheet music but ignored the tempo and dynamic markings.

Morgan, in particular, has such a harsh, uncontrolled edge to his voice that you might assume he just escaped from a rock concert. (It comes as little surprise to read in his Playbill bio that he originated a role in the world premiere of Brooklyn; it sounds like he has yet to recover.) But his sound, like the others', is of small real consequence - when Denver himself makes an appearance via Jan Hartley's projections in the show's final minutes, his voice lacks the distinctly polished sound of extensive vocal training so evident in the performers onstage, but emanates something even more important: heart.

That's why he can captivate from beyond the grave on a projection screen in a way Myler and his six singers can't, despite being live in front of us. Death can't mask the essential truth about someone, but poor theatre can fail to bring it out, a sad fact that Almost Heaven, like Lennon before it, all too easily proves.

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Almost Heaven
Running Time: 2 hours, including one 15 minute intermission
Promenade Theatre, 2162 Broadway at West 76th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge