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'Almost heaven'? A lot more like hell

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ALMOST HEAVEN: SONGS OF JOHN DENVERPromenade Theatre, 2162 Broadway, at West 76th Street. (212) 239-6200.

JOHN Denver wasn't exactly a hipster favorite, but his music deserves better than it gets in "Almost Heaven," the latest theatrical exploitation of pop history.

Directed by Randal Myler, clearly the go-to man when it comes to musical exhumation - his credits include shows about Hank Williams, Janis Joplin and the Mamas and the Papas - "Almost Heaven" manages to make the late singer/songwriter's music seem even cornier than it was.

Denver actually wrote many great songs, and his unaffected vocal style was endearing.

Not so this musical, which features some 28 numbers in a loosely connected revue that reveals little about the music and even less about the man.

Conceived by Harold Thau, the show features a six-member ensemble blandly singing and smiling their way through Denver's work, from his early folksy protest songs to his country-flavored chart hits. Serving as a narrator and stand-in for its subject is Jim Newman, a handsome blond who bears a slight resemblance to Denver.

Awkwardly structured around uninformative biographical snippets and such narrative devices as fan letters supposedly written to the singer, the show mainly consists of one musical number after another.

Unfortunately, most of the performers fail to do justice to the material, in some cases delivering it with a vocal heavy-handedness that works against the songs' simple sentiments. Although there's some harmonizing, most of it ineffectual, more often one of the singers takes center stage while the others bop their heads or slap their knees.

Photomontages depicting Woodstock and Vietnam flash by, and they're fascinating compared to seeing, say, images of the Rocky Mountains during "Rocky Mountain High" and, yes, airplanes, during "Leaving on a Jet Plane."

As with the recent "Lennon," the show ends with a film clip of the actual performer. And although he appears on screen for but a few moments, the unforced naturalism that Denver displays illustrates the artificiality of everything that preceded it.

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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