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'Almost Heaven': Colonial Little Theatre's revue a tribute to music of John Denver

Friday, April 3, 2009
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John Birchler plays guitar as he rehearses his role as John Denver in preparation for a coming performance of “Almost Heaven” at the Colonial Little Theatre in Johnstown.
Photographer: Barry Sloan
John Birchler plays guitar as he rehearses his role as John Denver in preparation for a coming performance of “Almost Heaven” at the Colonial Little Theatre in Johnstown.

If you want to learn more about folk rock icon John Denver, find a copy of “Take Me Home: An Autobiography,” or “Poems, Prayers and Promises: The Art and Soul of John Denver.”

But, if you’d prefer to listen to his music — or at least a fresh interpretation of his music — then head to the Colonial Little Theatre in Johnstown for “Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver.” The show opens tonight at 8 and runs for six performances over the next two weekends.

Scotia resident John Birchler is directing and performing as John Denver in the 2005 off-Broadway production created by Harold Thau, although the show is more of a song-filled trip down memory lane than a traditional musical with a story line. And Birchler, a retired high school English teacher in the Guilderland district, doesn’t try to impersonate Denver at all, although if he did he might be pretty good at it.

‘Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver’

WHERE: Colonial Little Theatre, 1 Colonial Court, Johnstown

WHEN: 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. April 10-11 and 2 p.m. April 12

HOW MUCH: $14, $12 for seniors and students

MORE INFO: 762-4325 or go to www.coloniallittletheatre.org

“I’ve been told that I look like him and sound like him, but I don’t see it,” said Birchler, who is joined in the five-person cast by his wife, Amy Birchler; Laura Andruski; Lisa Weiderman; and Michelle Pawlaczyk.

No characters, per se

“I don’t try to sound like him. It’s just a matter of representing his songs in that John Denver musical style. We want to perform the songs and be as faithful to him as we can.”

Birchler is the only identified character in the show, which includes 29 of Denver’s tunes, some of them accompanied by an audio-visual presentation.

“There are no real characters, but I do portray a John Denver-like figure,” said Birchler. “There’s a bit of a narrative thread throughout the show, and that’s me talking a little bit as Denver about different things that happened in his life. Beyond my little dialogue and the music, there’s an A-V component that includes almost 130 images projected onto a screen. In some way, they illustrate the songs and much of Denver’s life.”

“Almost Heaven” — the title is taken from the first two words of one of Denver’s biggest hits, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” — was created by Thau, a New York producer who won a 2007 Tony Award for Best Musical, “Spring Awakening,” and also earned a 2008 nomination in the Best Revival of a Play category for “Homecoming.” “Almost Heaven” opened at the Promenade Theatre in New York in November of 2005 for a limited run, and was directed by Tony Award nominee Randal Myler (“It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues”).

“Two years ago, I was looking for something like this, and I finally went on the Internet and looked for it,” said Birchler. “I finally found the company with the rights to the play and made a few inquiries. I found out it was more like a musical revue than a play, but it’s also a little bit more complicated than a revue.”

Originally, Birchler was only planning on directing the production.

“All my friends wanted me to find a musical about John Denver and then direct it,” said Birchler. “Then, they wanted me to perform. I really intended not to be on stage, maybe just play an instrument off stage. But we didn’t get enough people, so I joined the cast.”

Endearing and eerie

When Birchler agreed to also perform in the show, Andruski, a well-known director in Capital Region community theater circles, didn’t need any more arm-twisting to get her back on stage.

“I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a huge John Denver fan, and yes I’m one of those people who believe that John Birchler can really channel him,” said Andruski. “I would agree that he looks and sounds like him. There are moments when text is spoken, little excerpts from John Denver’s life, and when John [Birchler] reads those lines, he uses a little bit of that John Denver twang. To me it’s very endearing and also a little bit eerie.”

A native of Batavia in western New York, Birchler went to the University at Albany and remained in the Capital Region after graduation, landing a teaching job in Guilderland. He retired seven years ago. While music and playing the guitar was always a big part of his life, he didn’t get involved in the theater until 1994.

“I had been going to Capital Rep for a while and enjoying shows there, and then the drama director at our school asked if somebody would direct a show for him,” said Birchler. “So, I volunteered and I might have been his only choice, so he gave me the straight play to do in the fall and he directed the musical in the spring.”

You might think that Birchler would be a natural to direct a musical, having spent much of his life playing his guitar professionally. But, you’d be wrong.

“I think comedy and drama are my milieux,” he said. “I don’t even like performing in musicals. I’m not very good with dancing and movement. I’d rather just sing and act. Whenever I had the occasion to move in a musical, it was really quite painful. So, I really don’t see myself ever directing a traditional musical, and I certainly don’t recommend directing and performing in the same show like I’m doing now. I feel more like a big organizer than a director.”

Lori Snow is the musical director for the Colonial Little Theatre production, and Don Wheeler is the set designer.

Audience bound to sing

At times, all five performers are onstage together, but there are also a number of duets and solos.

“People are going to be singing along with us, I don’t know if they’re going to hear our harmonies,” said Andruski. “But people feel compelled to sing this music and I certainly understand that. We welcome it.”

Like Andruski, Birchler remains a big fan of Denver, who was killed in an airplane crash in 1997.

“I primarily liked the melodies,” said Birchler. “His songs just seemed to soar up the scale, like watching eagles fly. But I was also very fond of the lyrics and the spirit of the environment in his songs. There was a lot of poetic material in what John Denver wrote.”

 
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