‘Almost Heaven’ saved by music, enthusiasm
JOHNSTOWN Director John Birchler’s love of the music and times of John Denver is evident in his enthusiastic delivery of Denver’s songs and a note in the playbill, and it’s this passion that often carries you through the dry patches of “Almost Heaven,” now at Colonial Little Theatre.
The show is less a play than a concert, so if you’re looking for a modestly scripted and staged presentation of 29 numbers, many of whose words you’ll know if you’re of a certain age, the evening will be pleasantly entertaining.
For me, however, less would have been more.
Furthermore, the script that connects the numbers with biographical tidbits, but not much substance, is sometimes mechanically delivered. In Act II, however, the narrative stiffness disappears between songs as the performers ad lib as good musicians do, and one imagines that they could have told their own John Denver stories with more feeling than sometimes comes across here.
The show is a pleasure to look at, thanks to Don Wheeler’s country set design and slide show (with a nod to technician Glenn Alkinburgh as well). The rear wall projections deftly echo the lyrics. So, for instance, “I Wish I Could Have Been There (Woodstock)” features myriad images of that 40-year-old event, images sure to stir the memory of folks who now get senior discounts. There was nice tech work throughout.
Birchler is joined by singers Laura W. Andruski, Amy Birchler, Michelle Pawlaczik and Lisa Vrooman Weiderman, each of whom has solo turns, sometimes backed by the others. Amy Birchler lights up the stage all night with strong vocal chops and confident delivery. “Rocky Mountain High,” for example, is bang-up: she’s a fine singing actress. Pawlaczik does right by “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (with audience participation). Andruski’s and Weiderman’s voices are shown to best effect in ensemble selections, where they expertly pull off the close harmonies of such numbers as “I Guess I’d Rather Be in Colorado” and “Wild Montana Skies.”
John Birchler is on stage virtually the entire show, playing guitar or banjo and singing. With a wide range and hard vibrato characteristic of Denver’s voice, he’s especially strong on “Looking for Space” and “For You,” and the whole cast makes magic on “Matthew”/“Let Us Begin.”
Mention must be made, as well, of the contributions of musical director Lori Porter Snow, who has fine-tuned the cast and accompanies on keyboard from the pit.
Denver has been dead for nearly 12 years, but judging by the good-sized and responsive audience at Friday’s opening night, the music of this artist with concerns about the environment and war and peace is alive and relevant.
‘Almost Heaven: John Denver’s
WHERE: Colonial Little Theatre, One Colonial Court, Johnstown
WHEN: through Apr. 12
HOW MUCH: $14-$12
MORE INFO: 762-4325