John Denver musical is “Almost Heaven” until May 29

Review

Milt Thomas

Those of us who remember the 60s and 70s – through our parents or because we were there – know it was a turbulent time in recent American history. The Vietnam War, protests against it, Kent State, psychedelic-fueled music, Woodstock, Watergate and more, reflected that turmoil.  But one voice rose above the din of anger and sang of an almost mythical America the beautiful. That was John Denver.

The music of John Denver, his biggest hits and musical legacy, are on display in the Riverside Theatre production of Almost Heaven John Denver’s America. It is more concert than musical, as the troupe of nine performers dazzle the audience with their musical virtuosity and acting chops flowing through a 29-song performance of Denver songs. They are familiar to all, including such timeless classics as “Rocky Mountain High,” “Take Me Home Country Roads,” “Annie’s Song,” “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and the list goes on.

Originally planned as a possible season opening show, thanks to COVID, resulted in this being the final show of a truncated 2021-22 season. But this show is a glorious celebration of Denver’s music performed by an ensemble of nine actor-musicians at the top of their game. In fact, they all sing and play a total of 37 different instruments during this amazing show. They weave the story of Denver’s career and life in and around each song. His first hit, “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” was written by Denver in 1966, but it became a #1 hit in 1967 by Peter, Paul and Mary. Misinterpreted as a song about Vietnam, he actually wrote it about having to go on tour, leaving his home and family behind.

Many of his songs during the late 60s through the mid-70s were inspired by his love for home and for Annie, the woman he married in 1967. “Rocky Mountain High” resulted from a camping trip with Annie and some friends. “I’m Sorry” dealt with his missing Annie while on the road, and he composed “Annie’s Song” in ten minutes on a ski lift. “Sunshine on My Shoulders” was written on a dreary winter day looking forward to spring.

Two of his most famous recording went on to become state songs, “Rocky Mountain High” in Colorado and “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in West Virginia.  The phrase, “Almost Heaven West Virginia” is a common saying there. Actually, the song was written about Maryland but West Virginia fit better in the song’s meter.

Sam Sherwood (whose Riverside resume includes the shows Ring of Fire, Lost Highway and Million Dollar Quartet) channels Denver, narrating his story as he sings the lead on some of the tunes. The other cast members take turns singing lead while at the same time all of them switch instruments for each song. They each seemed to be proficient on all 37 of them! (Yes, spoons and washboards are included.)

Almost Heaven is a must-see musical event celebrating the toe-tapping music of John Denver, songs that tap into the soul of America. Don’t hesitate to purchase your tickets because it will all be over with the May 29 show.

Call the Riverside Theatre Box Office at (772) 231-6990 or order online at www.RiversideTheatre.com. Riverside Theatre is located at 3250 Riverside Drive in Vero Beach.

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