by Beki Pineda (Boulder Magazine)
ALMOST HEAVEN – Songs by John Denver and others; Vocal arrangements and orchestrations by Jeff Waxman; based on an original concept from Harold Thau; Directed by Nick Sugar. Produced by Town Hall Arts Center (presented at Hudson Gardens, 6115 South Santa Fe Drive, Denver) through October 11. Tickets available at 303-794-2787 or townhallartscenter.org.
As I sat on the lawn at Hudson Gardens listening to the beautiful music of John Denver soar into the summer evening, I was struck by the idea that I didn’t really know John Denver’s music. Oh, I knew all the popular stuff that got played on the radio (“Country Boy,” “Annie’s Song,” “Rocky Mountain High,” etc.). But I had never really explored his albums and the songs that reflected his personal philosophy. His catalog of music is so much deeper and thoughtful than the average listener realizes. He wrote from the heart about the loneliness of living in a city (“Fly Away”), his own weaknesses and uncertainties (“I’m Sorry,” “Looking for Space”), the beauty of a country childhood (“Montana,” “Matthew”). His song “For You” is the perfect wedding song in its expression of love and devotion.
The unanswered questions he asks in “Weapons” are especially relevant today. “Why are we still making weapons? Why keep on feeding the war machine? How can it be that we’re still fighting each other?”
But more than anything, John celebrated the world in all its wonders and invited his listeners to do the same. “Calypso” asks us to “live in the service of life and the living” and to acknowledge that to “live on the land, we must learn from the sea.” “I Guess He’d Rather be in Colorado” mourns for all those folk who have to live in a city, rather than in the wild beauty of Colorado. “Montana” sings a mother’s prayer for her son that Montana teaches him to be a man. John’s last song was “Yellowstone” – an ode to the wilderness that even includes the cry of a wolf in the lyrics. He wrote this song for an episode of the Nature TV series that explored the untamed parts of our land.
His life and his music is given glorious homage in the performances of the five singers and four musicians who bring it to life in the Hudson Gardens production. Thanks to the wizardry of Curt Behm, the Sound Designer, and his assistant, Board Operator Matthew Dugger, the music “fills up our senses” and echoes into the night. Simple costumes supplied by Designer Linda Morken brought back the homespun look that John adopted. The administrative staff at Town Hall created a pleasant socially-distanced way for the audience to enjoy every aspect of the evening without getting too close to one another.
But this night belonged to John and to the singers who brought him back to us for a couple of hours. Matt LaFontaine, Mark Middlebrook, Alison Mueller, Zach Stanley, and newcomer Tasha Waters have some of the strongest and most melodious voices you will ever hear. The beautiful arrangements designed by Jeff Waxman gave ample opportunity for amazing solo work and even more amazing harmonies. I have to give special kudos to Mark Middlebrook’s rendering of “For You.” I think I could die happy if someone sang that song to me with so much feeling. Each song was celebrated with enthusiasm and joy. Everyone looked and sounded like they were having so much fun bringing the music to the audience. What a wonderful way to spend a summer’s evening!
There is very limited seating and a short run. My advice is to go on line immediately and get one of the tickets for the remaining performances before the buzz about the beauty of this show sells it out. I hope the evening has the same effect on other audience members that it had on me. I started searching for the John Denver music I hadn’t heard and added them to my play list. As John sang in “Poems, Prayers and Promises,” “It’s been a good life all in all.”
A WOW factor of 9.5!!