Pull out the fiddle and rosin up the bow, because we all might just be able to go home and discover we are a country boy, or girl, at heart after seeing Back Home Again: A John Denver Holiday Concert, making its world premiere at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, California.
It is not a newfound trend to turn the life or music of a musician into a theatrical show, as has recently been done with the works of Bob Dylan (The Times They Are A-Changin’), Billy Joel (Movin’ Out) and John Lennon (Lennon), yet with Back Home Again, it is the spirit of Denver that takes center stage, avoiding the pitfalls of artistically interpreting the vision of his music.
Back Home Again does not pretend to be anything but a night of Denver adoration, put together to resemble his famed television holiday specials, mixing some of his timeless melodies including “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” “Back Home Again” and “Matthew,” with such perennial holiday favorites as “Deck the Halls,” “First Noel” and “Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer.” All nearly blend seamlessly together, although certain moments tend to border on preachiness with continued religious references, which could be rectified by billing the show as a “Christmas” concert as opposed to using the generically used moniker, “holiday.”
Sentimentality is never lacking in this concert style evening, created by Tony nominees Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman (It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues), with musical direction by Wheetman and direction by Myler.
Wheetman has a rather kindred connection with Denver, as he was a member of his band for eight years, which explains the overwhelming sense of fondness for the material in Back Home Again, with the evening playing like a cozy gathering around the fire and hearth, intertwined with stories of Denver’s country-style living and love for nature.
Denver had a far-reaching career, working as a songwriter, performer, actor, environmentalist, humanitarian and even photographer, which is made abundantly clear through the use of Denver’s personal photos of mountains, horses in snow and aspens aglow. The beauty of the scenery of which Denver lived wonderfully compliments the twanging and picking of the world-class three-person band on stage (Wheetman, Douglas Clegg and David P. Jackson, Jr.).
No stranger to Denver’s music on stage, Jim Newman (Minnelli on Minnelli, Steel Pier), who recently portrayed the country singer in the off-Broadway production of Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver, reprises the role, albeit in a more reserved performance that hits all the right notes. Newman said at the age of 5 he saw his first Denver concert, and his love of the music is still present. Joining Newman in vocals is Gail Bliss, who was last seen on Broadway in the Johnny Cash musical, Ring of Fire.
Aside from a handful of awkward transitions between song and exposition, Back Home Again proves a well-deserved tribute to Denver, and would surely make a great addition to the Rubicon’s annual line-up, as audiences are bound to all come back now, you hear.
Back Home Again: A John Denver Holiday Concert continues through December 24, 2006 at the Rubicon Theatre, located at 1006 East Main Street in Ventura’s Downtown Historic Cultural District. Tickets can be ordered at 805-667-2900. For more information, visit www.rubicontheatre.org.