Jim Newman in Almost Heaven(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Jim Newman in Almost Heaven
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Early on in Almost Heaven: The Songs of John Denver, a fan struggles with the right word to describe her musical hero in a letter to him. Eventually, she settles on "cool." Cool? As someone who grew up in suburban New Jersey during the height of Denver's popularity in the 1970s, I can promise you that "cool" wasn't how we described the clean-cut country/pop singer, if we even dared to utter his name in public. Sure, we secretly enjoyed some of his songs on the radio. Maybe we even bought a Denver album or two. But we didn't flaunt our affection for him the way we professed our love for James, Joni, or Janis.

If there's a mission to this modestly entertaining revue, it's to depict the late singer -- who died at the age of 53 in a plane crash -- as totally cool. Conceiver/producer Harold Thau (Denver's former manager) and director Randal Myler practically do somersaults in trying to the give an ultra-hip spin to this seemingly squarest of troubadours. You don't believe me? Then why have Denver, played with aw-shucks charm by the handsome Jim Newman, engage in a whole discussion at the end of "Rocky Mountain High" about the fact that the line "and everybody's high" in the song may have referred to non-natural elation? Even more to the point, why is this top-charting hit sung by the rough-voiced Lee Morgan as if he's channeling Bruce Springsteen? And why, in Act II, do the revue's creators mention Denver's two DUI arrests?

Do you need further proof of my theory? Denver's anti-war sensibilities -- and what could be more apropos today? -- are brought to the forefront in the first section of the show with the inclusion of his little-known song "Let Us Begin (What Are We Making Weapons For)" and a snippet of Phil Ochs' "Draft Dodger Rag." Even more blatantly, the talented Jennifer Allen sings Denver's megahit "Take Me Home, Country Roads" as slides of Vietnam-era soldiers are projected at the rear of the stage. (These and other slides, plus a video of the real Denver that's screened towards the end of the show, have the probably unintentional effect of reminding us of Lennon. This is not a good thing.)

Terry Burrell in Almost Heaven(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Terry Burrell in Almost Heaven
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
In some numbers, the "cool" factor derives solely from Jeff Waxman's re-orchestrations. "Leaving on a Jet Plane" -- which Denver wrote, though Peter, Paul & Mary most famously recorded it -- is smashingly reinterpreted by the lovely Terry Burrell as a jazz-club standard full of smoke and sadness. Even "Sunshine on My Shoulders" seems less treacly than usual, thanks to a retro-1960s arrangement that would make you swear it was originally recorded by The Fifth Dimension.

Credit for that song's rehabilitation also goes to the dynamic, silver-voiced Valisia Lekae Little, one of the show's two major discoveries. The other is the strapping Nicholas Rodriguez, who brings vocal heft to everything he sings, including the enchanting "Calypso." Rodriguez also transforms the potentially gooey ballad "For You" into the kind of heartfelt love song that any theater composer would kill to write. Sadly, Almost Heaven doesn't give enough of a showcase to either of these terrific performers; one can only hope that their next shows will do so.

Will Almost Heaven find an appreciative audience Off-Broadway? Denver's longtime fans may be disappointed that this isn't a true tribute show and will definitely be upset that some of his biggest hits, including "Annie's Song" and "How Can I Leave You Again," have been shoehorned into a dramatically interesting but musically unsatisfying medley. As for gaining converts, that's always a challenge -- no matter what the cause. Speaking for myself, I may have some newfound respect for John Denver after seeing Almost Heaven, but he's still got a way to go before he makes my "cool" list.