Almost Heaven brings Denver’s timeless folk music center stage
by Josh Bootsma
MUNSTER, Ind. (February 28, 2020) – Heads are swaying at the Theatre at the Center as timeless folk music wavers its way out of guitars, a banjo, and harmonious voices and transports audiences to Colorado, West Virginia, and every acoustic and country-loving haven in between. Almost Heaven: John Denver’s America provides an overview of John Denver’s life and a robust and beautiful sampling of his music that will delight both life-long fans and casual listeners alike.
John Denver (played by Steven Romero Schaeffer) says at the top of the show that his music is “the best I have to give.” In fact, the same can be said of Almost Heaven as a whole. John Denver’s music is exceptional in its soulfulness and down-to-earth complexity, and those qualities are brought to life by the musical’s talented actors and musicians—making the music the best Almost Heaven has to give. Though filled with Rocky Mountain highs, the musical is not without its Shenandoah Valleys, providing a less-than-satisfying biography of a man whose music was heavily influenced by his life.
Loose, singalong vibe
The structure of the musical is a loose and casual one, launching into songs without much fanfare and sharing background information in a conversational tone. Schaeffer looks convincing as Denver, and touts a formidable, if not particularly Denver-ian, tenor. Instead of electing to have the John Denver character sing lead on all of the songs, Almost Heaven spreads the workload throughout the talented cast. Actress Sara Geist leads a lively rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and Andrew Mueller handles “Rocky Mountain High” with beautiful background support. Tommy Malouf (whom attentive audiences will recognize as Johnny Cash from last spring’s Million Dollar Quartet) and Schaeffer team up to sing a thematically interesting mashup of “Matthew” and “Weapons.” Nearly all of the songs feature harmonies with multiple voices, which, combined with female voices sometimes singing the lead melody and the occasional rhythm or tone departure from the original, helps the audience appreciate Denver’s music in a new light.
The musical sometimes feels less like a conventional concert and more like a singalong, a choice that honors Denver’s people-oriented vibe and perhaps evokes his appearances on The Muppets and other TV specials. Each actor has a unique vocal quality, and the strongest moments of the show are those when all the performers are singing together.
Character and biography depth
The informal, let’s-all-just-make-some-music-together mentality is an effective one, but sometimes falls short. Apart from the character obviously dressed to be John Denver, the four other actors are never given a name—much less an identity—which doesn’t allow the audience to form a real connection with them.
In the second act, the talented Shannon McEldowney briefly takes on the persona of Denver’s first wife Annie, but never interacts directly with John Denver in that role. Apart from that instance and a few other blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exceptions, none of the characters are defined as anything other than John’s musically-talented friends. The result is, even though Almost Heaven tries to make itself less of a concert, the lack of connection the audience is allowed to feel for the characters makes it feel more like one, and makes it more difficult for the audience to care about Denver’s life and his music.
Similarly, the biographical information the musical shares about Denver’s life leaves something to be desired. Although there are plenty of factual tidbits scattered throughout Almost Heaven about its venerable title character, the tried and true “show, don’t tell” method would have done Denver’s story a favor. Similar to the other characters in the show, Denver is never shown doing much other than singing or talking in one of his brief auto-biographical moments. Born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., John Denver was married twice, had multiple DUIs, cared deeply about environmental and humanitarian causes, and died while flying a single-person airplane—all of which are just briefly alluded to in the musical. Yes, getting to know Denver’s music helps audiences learn about his life, but the reverse is also true, and the lack of strong action showing John Denver’s life doesn’t give the music the full meaning it otherwise might have.
Setting and music
Theatre at the Center’s Almost Heaven is set in a woodsy arena, with striking, curved trees providing the proscenium archway. The musicians, who play an array of folksy instruments are sheltered by the long, white arms of the trees while much of the singing and performance happens on the two lower levels of the stage, which are painted in a forest-inspired geometry. The lights range from orange to yellow to purple, and match the emotions of the songs while the costumes have an appropriate people-of-the-land energy.
A critical but easily overlooked aspect of Almost Heaven is its reliance on its actors to supply musical support—with instruments as well as voices. Each of the five performers is called upon to play guitar at some point in the performance, while Schaeffer occasionally strums a mandolin and Malouf maneuvers both the mandolin and a banjo, depending on the song. McEldowney also strums a washboard percussion piece occasionally and Malouf adds a distinct bluegrass flavor to “Grandma’s Feather Bed” by playing the Jew’s harp. The three musicians behind the proscenium—William Underwood, Malcolm Ruhl, and Alison Tatum—are appropriately placed in view of the audience as they provide the music’s backbone in the form of piano, electric and bass guitar, harmonica, tambourine, and other instruments.
Almost Heaven is punctuated by characters pausing to read letters from Denver’s fans telling him how much they love his music, sharing that they sang “Sunshine On My Shoulders” at their school talent show, or asking him to dedicate a song to them—even if it’s just in his own mind. Denver says he loves knowing that his music can affect those “whose lives I know little, but care very much about.” And therein lies the charm of Almost Heaven, a musical focused (sometimes to a fault) on the music of a man who touched thousands across generations, music that captured the simple truths of life. Audiences visiting the Theatre at the Center will see the beautiful set, learn a bit about John Dever’s life, and hear many performers sing beautifully and play a wide variety of instruments. But perhaps most important is what John Denver says at the beginning of the show, “What’s meaningful is the music and how you feel about it.”
Performance times and rates
The show runs through March 22 during the dates and times listed below:
- Wednesdays and Thursdays: 2:00pm
- Fridays: 7:30pm
- Saturdays: 3:00pm and 7:30pm
- Sundays: 2:30pm
Individual ticket prices range from $42–$46. To purchase individual tickets, call the Box Office at 219-836-3255.
Group discounts are available for groups of 11 or more. Student tickets are $20, and gift certificates are also available.
Theatre at the Center is located at 1040 Ridge Road in Munster, Indiana. For more information, visit www.TheatreAtTheCenter.com.