Denver Center Theatre Company invites its audience to experience a Rocky Mountain High March 28, when Almost Heaven, a new musical about the life and times of John Denver, opens in what is hoped will be an international hit.
The Tony Award-honored DCTC began previews for the show, subtitled Songs and Stories of John Denver, March 21, and by March 27 the run was 90 percent sold out, a spokesman said.
The new biographical show is presented in association with John Denver's longtime friend and manager, Harold Thau, and is written, adapted and directed by Peter Glazer. Songs written or sung by the late blonde-mopped vocalist are part of the experience.
Aspen resident Thau told Playbill On-Line that Denver Center is a first step toward a wider future for the show, and characterizes Almost Heaven as a Broadway-worthy book musical with presentational aspects, such as video and direct-address to the audience, as well as in-character moments. Performances in Denver continue to April 27 at the Stage Theatre.
"I've produced theatre in New York and London," said Thau, whose credits include the original True West in New York City. "This is not just about doing a revue. I could have put together a [John Denver] revue or concert in five minutes and probably made a lot of money. I was interested in doing a theatrical presentation. We do it differently: First of all, there's no clone of John Denver on stage. Nobody plays John Denver — and everyone does. We have three women and three men in the cast and an incredible orchestra, seven pieces." The John Denver songs are put in the context of the singer's life, but also in the context of music history and world history. "We use videos to illustrate, we use different styles to tell the story," Thau said.
What are Thau's hopes for Almost Heaven?
"I want to tour it, maybe go to London or Australia, before bringing it into [New York]," he said. "There are also venues all over this country. It's a matter of what theatres are available and what time slots. We'll know that as [producers and bookers] come to see it." Denver Center has a tradition of giving voice to shows that go on to wider futures. The Immigrant, The Laramie Project and It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues all began at the Colorado not-for-profit.
Thau said the show is a snapshot of the American experience — not only Denver's, but ours. "When John was popular, much of the culture was hard rock and the people who were writing about it didn't understand what John was saying," Thau explained. "I remember quotes from European commentators who would say John's music reminds them of the best qualities of Americans and America."
Orchestrations, vocal arrangements and musical direction are by Jeff Waxman, who brings to life such soundtrack-of-your-life classics as "Leaving on a Jet Plane," "Annie's Song," "Rocky Mountain High," "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," "All My Memories," "Sunshine On My Shoulders," "Take Me Home, Country Roads" and the little-known "Yellowstone," among many others. Denver died prematurely when a plane he was piloting crashed.
His lyrics said that "he was born in the summer of his 27th year" (when he moved to the mountains of Colorado) and for many years the country-flavored pop singer celebrated a chart- topping high that, during the 1970s in particular, offered listeners a sense of hope and optimism as well as environmental awareness. In his time, Denver was as popular as Michael Jackson, Thau said. His albums sold millions and he flirted with movie acting (Oh, God).
The new show uses text from Denver's autobiography, interviews, media accounts and original material, offering up a remarkable life story — the bespectacled singer was also a writer, composer, activist and movie star — wrapped in new vocal arrangements and orchestrations by musical director Jeff Waxman, with assistance from musical consultant Milt Okun, founder of Cherry Lane Music Publishing Company. Video and projections are part of the show, as well.
Thau's association with Denver began in 1965. He still runs Denver's music companies. "I was the business manager for the Mitchell Trio, and John became the lead singer," Thau said. "They toured 1965-68, the folk era, the time of change. Folk music was dying out and the kids were really into sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. John decided he was going to go out on his own and do his own music. We liked each other, we stayed together. The team was myself, John and Milt Okun. Milt and I both believed in John — and the rest if history, as we say."
The Almost Heaven design team includes James Dardenne (set), Michael Krass (costume), Dawn Chiang (lighting), Tony Meola (sound) and John Boesche (video and projection).
The cast of Almost Heaven includes all newcomers to Denver Center: Lisa Asher, Emily Bauer, Allison Briner, Sean Jenness, Bryan Scott Johnson and David Ranson. The band, billed as a collection of some of the nation's finest folk and country-pop musicians, includes Jeff Waxman (conductor and keyboards), Dave DeMichelis (guitar), Tony Marcus (strings and saxophone), Johnny Neill (fiddle and mandolin), Tony Pantelis (percussion), Mark Simon (bass) and Chris Soucy (guitar).
For information and tickets, call (303) 893-4100 or (800) 641 1222. Visit www.denvercenter.org.
— By Kenneth Jones