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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Almost Heaven: John Denver's America
is a Musical Portrait of America in the '70s

Also see Richard's reviews of Red Hot and Blue! and Holes

Center REPertory Company is presenting the West Coast premiere of the New York bound production of Almost Heaven: John Denver's America through October 8th. Folks who love John Denver's earthy music will certainly love this show. The production reminds me of the old Mitch Miller television show where talented singers stood in separate spots like a Greek chorus singing the popular songs of the day. Here we have three very talented men with excellent credits wearing blue jeans and flannel shirts, and three wonderful women dressed in conservative country outfits singing songs written by one of the most popular singers of the '60s and '70s. The production look is similar to last year's Opening Doors Sondheim concert piece at Carnegie Hall.

Six appealing young persons stand in various areas in front of a giant screen where some great projections of '60s and '70s America are shown. There are also beautiful color shots of Colorado and the mountains. Denver's countrified music is clean and clear and has no tricky melodies, though many of the songs sound the same. Almost Heaven played for almost two years at the Denver Center Theatre Company before it was revised for a New York opening. It now contains twenty-seven Denver songs plus Phil Och's "Draft Dodger Rag."

Jim Newman (Steel Pier, Sunset Boulevard and Bill Calhoun in national company of Kiss Me, Kate) plays John Denver. He is excellent with his awkward "aw shucks" attitude. He creates a likable presence with his voice and manner, sounding more like John Denver in songs like "Matthew" and "All of My Memories". When he breaks out in the perky "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," it gets the audience in a knee slapping mood with "hands a clappin' and feet a movin."

Lee Morgan (Brooklyn the Musical and The Who's Tommy) has a Kris Kristofferson/Johnny Cash type voice, singing "Eagles and Horses" and" Looking for Space." Nicholas Rodriguez (originated the role of Aaron in The Ten Commandments at the Kodak Theatre) has a stylish full range voice and a sexual presence. He is exceptional in the antiwar song "Let Us Begin (What are we Making Weapons For?)" and "Back Home Again."

The three female singers are great counterparts for the males; all three have terrific voices. Terry Burrell (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Into the Woods, Dreamgirls) brings a mesmerizing, jazzy responsiveness to "Leaving on a Jet Plane." Valisia Lekae Little (Las Vegas production of Mamma Mia) lets loose her potent pipes on several songs that have a gospel beat. Jennifer Allan (Cats, Guys and Dolls, City of Angels) makes strong contributions to the score of songs.

Book writer Peter Glazer gives us some insight into John Denver's life, starting with the singer growing up a "military brat child" moving from base to base with his Air Force Dad, his show biz beginnings with the Chad Mitchell Trio, his suspicious perplexity about the politics of the '60s and his first and second marriages. Director Randal Myler (It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues - Tony nomination as Director/Co-Author - and Hank Williams: Lost Highway) keeps the show moving at a fast rate of speed and includes a film at the end of the performance with John Denver himself singing the lovely song "Yellowstone" to a group in the Rocky Mountains. The live cast joins in at the end. This is an entertaining evening for persons who like this clean cut type of music.

Almost Heaven: John Denver's America runs through October 8th in the Lesher Theatre at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. For information and phone call 925-943-7469.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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