You might want to “Take me Home, Country Roads” to the latest production Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver, which for the first time is playing in the Washington, DC metropolitan area in Annapolis, MD. Infinity Theatre Company is performing Almost Heaven in tandem with Million Dollar Quartet (which opens on June 25th).
When walking into the Children’s Theater of Annapolis, the venue hosting this production, Diana Chun’s scenic design immediately transforms you to a typical John Denver concert with a huge replica of the earth at the back of the stage. As the lights dimmed, I was just getting settled in my seat when I and the audience heard faint sounds of chirping birds in the background.
Almost Heaven contains 21 Denver songs that are introduced by background stories of John’s life from the early 1960s until his tragic death in a plane crash in 1997. The songs are ‘introduced’ throughout the show by a book or “Original Concept” credited to Harold Thau. The book is, at times, confusing, and we learn very little about the characters who appear in it. It contributes very little to the piece. Frankly, if they just threw the book out, and allowed these seven gifted singers and musicians to perform the amazing selection of John Denver songs, it would have been a more ‘heavenly’ and enjoyable experience.
As John Denver, with his tall stature, blond hair and granny glasses, James Bock is perfectly cast in the major role. Although Bock’s first solo is “Rocky Mountain High” towards the end of Act I, the song is dramatically shortened to show how RCA, Denver’s recording company for many years, canceled his contract since the song contained the words “friends around the campfire and everybody’s high.” Personally, this is one of many conundrums about Denver since his discussions about this very issue when he was alive always mentioned the natural high of living in Colorado rather than a drug-induced trip. Bock’s Denver opens up the second act with his second solo – a rousing ‘complete’ edition of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”
Each member of the cast play a different character in the show and they all share Denver’s songs in solo and in harmonies with each other. Sarah Goldstein as Annie does a sweet rendition of “Fly Away,” and is joined by Emily Woods on “I Guess He’d Rather be in Colorado.”
Brit Herring, Austin Wayne Price and Bock join forces on a medley of “Matthew” and “Let Us Begin (What are we Making Weapons For?”). To close the first act, the full company sings out their heart on the sweeping “Calypso.”
Rhys Scheibe, who played the role of the spirit, did not have any solos, but his admirable participation in “For Bobbi” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and “Wild Montana Skies” made his presence invaluable.
Travis Artz’s solo “Looking for Space” shines an interesting perspective on the song. Austin Wayne Price’s inclusion of “This Old Guitar” was vital since this selection was usually the last song in almost every John Denver performance. Bock and Artz harmonizing together “For You” certainly brought a tear to my eye…since I believe this is one of Denver’s must powerful songs and he usually accompanied himself on the piano while singing it.
Musically, the show was a smashing success…since not only did the entire cast sing beautifully and with many gorgeous harmonies, but they also were exceptional musicians. Included in the “band” were a violin, banjo, washboard and 4 guitars. Jeff Waxman’s orchestrations and vocal arrangements served the songs, and the musicians and singers well.
Musical Director Amy Jones did a fine job with her talented musicians and singers. The piano and percussion always served major roles in any Denver concert, and here percussionist Chris Karabelas and pianist Solon Snider performed them well. Kudos to both of them!
For the encore…. a song that was truncated reappeared for a rousing and complete foot-stomping rendition. It was a great way to end a dramatic evening of memories and a realization that the opening song of the evening which was an entire cast sing along of “All of my Memories” from Denver’s 1971 Aerie Album made much more of a impact two hours later.
The genius behind the show was Harold Thau, who just happens to be the Executive Producer of many TV productions about John including his famous appearance with the Muppets and The Wildlife Concert.
Although Almost Heaven brought back many personal memories, it’s a shame that the show did not focus on Denver’s many achievements and honors, including:
In 2007, the State of Colorado adopted “Rocky Mountain High” as its State song. This was followed in March 2014 when West Virginia adopted “Take Me Home, Country Roads” as its State song. In October 2014, they recognized John Denver for his musical accomplishments with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Running Time: Two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.
Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver plays through July 28, 2016 at the Infinity Theatre Company in repertory with Million Dollar Quartet (opening June 25, 2016)performing at The Children’s Theatre of Annapolis – 1661 Bay Head Road, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call (877) 501-8499, or purchase them online.
Note: Almost Heaven opened off-Broadway on November 9, 2015 at the Promenade Theatre and ran for 73 performances until it closed on December 31, 2005. Here are some excerpts: