By Barry Reszel
Theatre at the Center, you had me at “Goodbye Again.”
For many, recalling when they first heard of the Kennedy or King assassinations, first steps on the moon, Challenger explosion and 9/11 attacks are life’s mile markers. Fans of folk legend John Denver add October 12, 1997 to that list—the day his experimental plane crashed into Monterey Bay near Pacific Grove, Calif., killing the beloved singer/actor/humanitarian; he was just 53.
I called my friend Mindie upon hearing of Denver’s death. She answered the phone, not with her usual, cheerful “Hello,” but by saying, “I know why you’re calling.” Mindie and I had shared plenty of poems, prayers and promises over the years—playing guitar and singing together at church events and retreats. The untimely death of a favorite troubadour was a reason to talk and to acknowledge his role in strengthening our friendship.
Perhaps that’s what TATC’s Almost Heaven: John Denver’s America does best—memorializes the delicious canon of music with ties that bind relationships. It’s why the concept (by Harold Thau) of five singers working their way through a good piece of Denver’s songbook allows for a nice evening’s entertainment. And with the soft touches of Linda Fortunato‘s direction along with the silhouette birch trees in Ann Davis‘ tranquil set design and G. “Max” Maxin IV‘s soft lighting, the TATC stage is the perfect place to showcase talents of some terrific musicians and cast.
Musical Director William Underwood on keyboards is joined by Alison Tatum on fiddle and Chicagoland icon Malcolm Ruhl on anything he wants to play. A variety of guitars, mandolins, washboards, spoons and more are picked up by the cast members who play along with every song. The five fine, enthusiastic singer-actors performing most of the best of the extensive Denver songbook each has an impressive resume of local performances. They include Steven Romero Schaeffer (previously seen in TATC’s Big River) as Denver and Sara Geist, Tommy Malouf, Andrew Mueller and Shannon McEldowney as, well, the others.
Therein lies the real flaw with this show (at the hands of its creator)—the lack of a clear understanding of who these people are. Because of that, there’s no strong connection among them and no answer to the elephant-in-the-room question: If John Denver is up there, why are the rest of these people singing so many of these songs instead of him?
It’s a flaw that, if fixed early in the workshopping of this 2005 musical, would have brought it to a local stage a lot sooner than February 2020. (This is Almost Heaven‘s Chicagoland premiere.) Foremost, Denver shouldn’t be among these characters who pretty much equally share the singing load. That would take away the angst of wondering whether the actor playing him could match this icon’s unmatchable range. As for the others, rather than simply being amorphous fine singers, each of the actors ought to have a persona with connection to the heavenly minstrel’s music and to one another.
But that said, this production offers enough insight and certainly enough fine musicality to endear it to Denver’s fans. With each taking his or her turn on leads, all five performers bring lovely renditions of “For Bobbi;” “Rhymes and Reasons;” “Take Me Home Country Roads;” “Fly Away;” “Rocky Mountain High;” “Matthew;” “Calypso;” “Thank God I’m A Country Boy;” “Grandma’s Feather Bed;” “Annie’s Song; ” “Leaving on a Jet Plane; ” “I’m Sorry;” “Sunshine On My Shoulders;” “Poems, Prayers and Promises” and more.
Personal highlights include McEldowny’s haunting, “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and gorgeous “Annie’s Song, “Mueller’s “Rocky Mountain High,” Geist’s “I’m Sorry,” Malouf’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and Schaeffer’s “Yellowstone.” Together, throughout, they blend marvelously.
In all, it’s a production allowing its lucky patrons the opportunity to reflect on all the memories gathered ’round the songs of a quintessential folk star. Among the monologues is this explanation of why Denver’s music still resonates with so many, even 22-1/2 years after his death: “Powerful songs are powerful because they talk about the human experience and what we all aspire to.”