Review: Lessons from a summer of outdoor theatre in the time of COVID – John Moore

Almost Heaven - John Moore Review

by John Moore (Senior Arts Journalist – Arvada Center)

Those companies that got out of the box deepened relationships with grateful audiences. Those that grow stagnant do so to their own peril.

…Not every live offering was so limited by crowd size. The Littleton Town Hall Arts Center had big plans to present a late-winter indoor production of the John Denver biography “Almost Heaven” on an indoor set accompanied by a provocative, original video underscore. When the shutdown ended those grand plans, Town Hall moved the production outdoors to the picturesque environs of nearby Hudson Gardens, which can accommodate about 70 on its expansive grounds.

By the time the run ends on October 11, Town Hall will have managed to sate about 1,500 of its audiences’ theatre fixes. Yes, that only represents about half the crowd size for a single performance of any big Broadway musical downtown. But then again, there aren’t all that many theatergoers who have so far shown much willingness to venture out to any production right now (inside or out). But those who have are being richly rewarded. At such a lousy time, you have to appreciate the opportunity to take in an early fall sunset in a garden while birds fly overhead and you’re listening to lyrics like: “I guess he’d rather be in Colorado; he’d rather spend his time out where the sky looks like a pearl after a rain.”

In every case, the thing that made those efforts special is the very thing that only came about through active problem-solving. Each of those environments enhanced the storytelling experience, and our understanding of the language or the lyrics. I would not have wanted to watch any of them indoors…

Review: Pivoting with Nick Sugar and the Town Hall Arts Center – John Moore

by John Moore (Senior Arts Journalist, Arvada Center)

How a lovely outdoor musical experience grew out of necessity and innovation

‘Almost Heaven’ was scheduled to open inside the Town Hall Arts Center on April 3 when rehearsals were shut down by the pandemic on March 13. What a strange set of circumstances that allowed for the musical to be reimagined as an outdoor, botanic experience at sunset that perfectly matches the tenor of John Denver’s music. Director Nick Sugar talks about it.

What are you doing to pivot?
We were shuttered during our third week of rehearsal. When I realized this was going to be much worse than expected, my first conversation with Town Hall was that “Almost Heaven” was the show that needed to open our theatre back up when the time came. The music is inspirational. It is the spirit of our community at Town Hall. “Almost Heaven” is Colorado. This version at Hudson Gardens is not the theatrical production that we had envisioned. It is not being performed on the set that was designed and completed on our stage. However, being able to see and hear these amazing singers without their masks on is joyous. “Almost Heaven” gives us all hope.

Why are you doing it?
All of us at Town Hall were invested in the show physically and emotionally. The cast was committed to the show as well. If I had to re-cast several performers, or if the Town Hall team felt it weren’t appropriate material to be doing for our first venture back, “Almost Heaven” would not be happening. Putting up a production takes a lot of work. Getting “Almost Heaven” up at Hudson Gardens has taken even more hard work, dedication and determination, and that work will continue throughout the run. After every performance, the band, lights, tent and sound have to be set-up and taken down each night.

Is there a timeline for programming to return to the indoor theatre?
It’s pointless to even speculate right now. Town Hall was lucky enough to be able to pivot with “Almost Heaven.” Hopefully, we can continue to pivot successfully with our next production.

Words of encouragement for others who are now pivoting their way through 2020?
We as a theater community are hurting. We have lost wages and jobs. We are re-learning, growing and trying to survive. Be brave and stay strong. We are a creative group of people. Create. We will pivot.

“Pivoting With …” is a new, ongoing series talking with members of the Colorado theatre community about how they are adapting to changes in their creative and personal lives as the COVID pandemic continues.

Review: Enjoy an outside chance for live theater – Littleton Independent

by Sonya Ellingboe (Littleton Independent)

“Almost Heaven: The Songs of John Denver” is an appropriate title for Town Hall Arts Center’s production at Hudson Gardens, running through Oct. 11. The lawn next to the blooming Rose Garden is marked with “pods” that hold a blanket or up to four chairs, inviting a relaxed audience to enjoy a LIVE performance with five singers/“Storytellers” and a four-piece band. The air is sweet and the audience happy to be there.

Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., who understandably took on the stage name of John Denver, was born in New Mexico and gained international recognition as a composer, songwriter and performer before his untimely death as he solo-piloted his own airplane and crashed.

Harold Thau is credited with the concept for this appealing show and Jeff Waxman for the orchestrations and vocal arrangements in the production. The program says: “songs by John Denver and others,” but the “others” are not spelled out.

Skillfully interwoven are familiar songs such as “Rocky Mountain High,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” “I Guess I’d Rather Be in Colorado,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and more … easy listening. Some audience members brought a picnic, while others just relaxed and visited before the performance and during a brief intermission. (No food was on sale at the venue, though it may be during the daytime shows at the trail entrance …)

Performers include Town Hall repeat-performers Matt LaFontaine, Mark Middlebrooks, Alison Mueller and Zach Stanley, as well as area newcomer Tasha Waters, who recently relocated from Philadelphia.

The atmosphere is laid-back and fragrant.

Director/choreographer Nick Sugar has created nice patterns of movement for these Storytellers, but they can’t be dancing on lumpy grass as they might on a wooden stage floor.

Voices blend smoothly and each singer is a solo-quality performer as well — what a joy to experience this on a lovely summer-into-fall evening outside!

Donna Debrecini leads the musicians: Mitch Jervis on guitar, Scott Alan Smith with bass, banjo and harmonica, and percussionist Larry Ziehl, filling that delicious night air with music.

Review: Almost Heaven – Boulder Magazine

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!!