"Almost Heaven," the new off-Broadway musical revue featuring the songs of John Denver, should please fans of the country music megastar but might make other theatergoers wish they were "Leaving on a Jet Plane."
New York's latest jukebox musical, which began an open-ended run Wednesday at the Promenade Theatre, features an enthusiastic ensemble of talented singers. But with arrangements that add little to Denver's songs and a painfully bland narrative, the show amounts to little more than a sentimental and at times drowsy concert.
A three-man, three-woman cast is led by Jim Newman (Broadway's "Steel Pier"), who plays Denver in the spoken interludes performed between songs. Newman nails the aw-shucks personality and ear-to-ear smile that were signature trademarks of Denver, who died in a 1997 crash of an experimental plane that he was piloting.
Strangely, the denim-clad Newman forgoes the round-rimmed glasses that also were strongly associated with Denver. Still, he is impressively authentic and believable in the role.
Each of the six singers take the lead on different numbers, displaying a range in styles from country to gospel to rock. The other performers are Jennifer Allen, Terry Burrell, Valisia Lekae Little, Lee Morgan and Nicholas Rodriguez.
The program features about 30 of Denver's songs, widely known for their easy-listening qualities. The list includes mainstream classics such "Rocky Mountain High," "Sunshine on My Shoulders," "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" and "Take Me Home, Country Roads."
Jeff Waxman's orchestration and vocal arrangements are clean, but too safe to warrant much excitement. The visible band at the rear of the stage provides competent accompaniment.
Images from the '60s and '70s are projected above the stage as Newman addresses the audience. The narrative, which was adapted from Denver's autobiography "Take Me Home," also chooses to take the easy road, reading like a promotional, glossy brochure version of Denver's life. Gushing fan letters are recited at various times during the production, presumably to illustrate the profound effect Denver had on the lives of his listeners.
"Almost Heaven" is directed by Randal Myler (Broadway's "It Ain't Nothin' But The Blues" and off-Broadway's "Hank Williams: Lost Highway"). The original concept is credited to Harold Thau, who is also the show's producer. Thau was Denver's longtime manager and friend, which might explain the excess of sentiment that pervades this production, reported AP.