Revised John Denver Musical, Almost Heaven, Now a More Personal Portrait, Director Says; Opens Oct. 9

News   Revised John Denver Musical, Almost Heaven, Now a More Personal Portrait, Director Says; Opens Oct. 9 Denver Center Theatre Company revisits a past smash hit, Almost Heaven, the story of the life and music of the late John Denver, with an ensemble cast that seeks to make the show a more personal portrait of the blond-haired "country boy" who thought the world was "far out" in the 1960s and '70s.
Marsh Hanson and Annie Golden in Almost Heaven.
Marsh Hanson and Annie Golden in Almost Heaven. Photo by Terry Shapiro

Opening night is Oct. 9, following previews that began Oct. 2. Performances play DCTC's 250-seat Ricketson Theatre. Randal Myler directs.

The work, presented in collaboration with producer Harold Thau, is written and adapted by Peter Glazer, with orchestrations and vocal arrangements by Jeff Waxman. The show is subtitled Songs and Stories of John Denver. Peter Glazer was the original director of the March 28-April 27, 2002, smash, sold-out run by Denver Center Theatre Company. Producer Thau (credited with the show's original concept) has been hoping to tour the show and aim it to New York since 2002.

With the Myler reconditioning of the piece, that may be a possibility (the director is known for commercial runs of Hank Williams: Lost Highway and Love, Janis).

"The fun really has been to make it simpler and more direct to the audience," Myler told Playbill On-Line between rehearsals. "In terms of the script, Peter and I have worked on simplifying and streamlining: Making the emphasis on John Denver's words and songs, coupled with fan letters and interviews he did. It's more like Jacques Brel and less like an extravaganza."

His work on this second version of Almost Heaven is about "personalizing the show" — the first incarnation (a smash for the resident company) had a "readers' theatre" feel to it, he said. Myler said he has tried to make the acting moments more dramatic. For example, Annie Golden plays a lifelong Denver fan and expresses her as a girl (her father takes her to her first John Denver concert) and later as a disillusioned middle-aged woman (who is still a Denver fan). There is now more a sense of dialogue and character about the show, activating the experience without making it a traditional book musical, Myler said.

Actor Jim Newman plays Denver, but isn't doing an impersonation.

Since the last version of the show, four songs have been added: "This Old Guitar" (an autobiographical tune); "Calypso" (showing Denver's environmentalist side — he wrote it in honor of the sea voyager Jacques Cousteau); "Autograph"; and "Grandma's Feather Bed."

"The show is much more introspective," Myler said. "I think John Denver is a terrific songwriter of love and loss ballads, but people only seem to remember him for 'Thank God I'm a Country Boy.' What we'll go away with is a deeper appreciation of John Denver as a songwriter...he was a man struggling with a lot of things: He wasn't always the sunny man we saw performing on stage. He was wrestling with a lot of things."

Among Denver's unhappier moments were his marital woes, RCA's famous dropping of him after making millions off him and arrests for drunk driving.

A former military brat who traveled with his family, Denver ironically would later writer anti-war songs such as "What Are We Making Weapons For?" But it's the gee-whiz, shaggy-haired, bespectacled Denver that people seem to remember.

The six-person cast includes Lisa Asher, Darlene Bel Grayson, Annie Golden (The Full Monty), Marsh Hanson (Broadway's Les Miserables), Michael Lanning and Jim Newman (the national tour of Big, Broadway's Steel Pier).

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John Denver became an unlikely pop superstar in the 1970s. The round-faced, toothy, blonde singer-songwriter sung willfully naive odes to country living, sunshine and other "natural highs." His hits included "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," "Sunshine on My Shoulder," "Annie's Song," "I'm Sorry" and, perhaps most famously, "Rocky Mountain High." He was a big enough star to parlay his music career into a starring role in the hit 1977 film, "Oh, God!" With the '80s, his popularity faded. He died in 1997 in a plane crash while flying an aircraft of his own creation.

For DCTC information, call (303) 893-4100 or visit www.denvercenter.org.

(l-r) Jim Newman, Annie Golden, Darlene Bel Grayson, Lisa Asher, Marsh Hanson, and Michael Lanning in <i>Almost Heaven</i>.
(l-r) Jim Newman, Annie Golden, Darlene Bel Grayson, Lisa Asher, Marsh Hanson, and Michael Lanning in Almost Heaven. Photo by Terry Shapiro