Caryl Glenn in Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver

 

As a child of the '60s and '70s, I favored rock groups such as Kansas. My older sister Shari loved pop music. For many kids, music was a way to escape the turmoil of those decades, and for Shari, it meant listening to Bobby Sherman or folk singer John Denver. Being the youngest, I sometimes teased her about the lameness of her music – and still do, for that matter. However, even for a precocious little brother, the music of Denver always struck a chord of enlightenment in my heart, and that's exactly what happened again at the Timber Lake Playhouse's opening-night performance of Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver.

Almost Heaven is the first production in Timber Lake's Jukebox Musical Series, and presents a surprisingly emotional anthology for the late Denver, who died piloting a small plane in 1997 in Monterey Bay, California. If this is an indication of the season to come, it's going to be a very good summer in the woods of northwest Illinois.

This not a traditional musical, but rather a lively revue of Denver's music taking the audience from his days as a member of the Kingston Trio to worldwide superstardom. The show opens with a video of Denver literally filling the stage (via Timber Lake's new projection system) and singing one of his last songs: “Yellowstone (Coming Home).” As the video concludes, a single spotlight illuminates cast member Roy Brown in the audience as he begins singing “All My Memories,” and the song progresses as each cast member steps on-stage and joins Brown in setting a warm, nostalgic tone for the evening.

Anthony Norman in Almost Heaven: Songs of John DenverBrown is the perfect actor to kick off this show, because it feels as if he is reuniting with friends while the audience becomes reacquainted with Denver's music. Brown's voice is natural and folksy, and his character appears to be the anchor for the rest of the cast. It would have been easy for him to overplay one of Denver's more famous songs, “Thank God I'm a Country Boy,” but Brown opened Act II singing it with such pure and simple energy that he was able to get the audience clapping and singing along as if they were part of the show.

Amelia Jo Parish gave an emotional performance early in the evening as she sang “Rhymes & Reasons.” Her angelic voice was juxtaposed against the harsh realities of the 1960s as images of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy filled the screen behind her. As a songwriter, Denver wrote one of the most well-known folk songs of the '60s, and when Harmony France led the song “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” her voice gave the number a smoky, soulful feel that was mournful and hopeful at the same time.

Another highlight was Carly Glenn's performance of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Her voice is reminiscent of a young Sarah McLachlan's and her interpretation, along with images of soldiers in Vietnam reading letters from their families, brought my wife to tears.

Harmony France in Almost Heaven: Songs of John DenverAnthony Norman actually reminded me of a young John Denver. He strolled through the evening as the show's bespectacled balladeer, strumming his acoustic guitar while backing up and accompanying his fellow performers. Norman's tenor voice was especially sweet on “Annie's Song” and in a duet with France on the well-known number “Fly Away.” Last but not least, Adam Fane provided the most animated performance of the evening. His facial expressions and the presentation of his earnest vocals were a lot of fun to watch, and he knocked it out of the park when leading the popular “Calypso,” with his “For You” solo also beautiful.

Directed by Courtney Crouse with music direction by Chris Logan, Almost Heaven is a high-energy journey through some of the more challenging times in American history, and in utilizing the deep and joyful music of America's greatest folk singer, the show is a wonderful way to relive those decades in the perfect setting of Timber Lake's rustic theatre.

It's hard to admit that my older sister got it right. It's true that the music of our youth can be an important reminder of our roots as adults, and I oftentimes think it would be fun to return to those days – to revisit and immerse myself in my childhood years and experience it all one more time. Almost Heaven is the closest thing I've found to a time machine.

 

Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver runs at the Timber Lake Playhouse (8215 Black Oak Road, Mt. Carroll) through May 15, and more information and tickets are available by calling (815)244-2035 or visiting TimberLakePlayhouse.org.

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