It's hard to hate John Denver, the flaxen-haired, pop-folk nerd who at his mid-1970s peak mined a vein of Americana somewhere between Folkways Records and Hallmark cards. He earned his place and his moment, and a few of his tunes - "Annie's Song," "Sunshine on My Shoulders" - stand with the best of fellow singer-songwriters James Taylor, Cat Stevens and Paul Simon. And any guy who sang with both the Muppets and Placido Domingo can't be all bad.
Somehow, though, the aggressively bland new jukebox musical "Almost Heaven," which just opened at the Promenade Theatre, manages to vaporize any reservoir of goodwill we might feel toward Denver, who died piloting a small plane in 1997. A risible mix of lightweight earnestness and synthetic folksiness, the show plays like the sort of third-rate tribute concert you might catch bookending a particularly desperate PBS fund drive.
There's already a surfeit of syrup in Denver's songs, so it doesn't help that "Almost Heaven" - with an "original concept" by Denver's manager, Harold Thau, and no writing credit - has been assembled with all the aesthetic daring of a fan-club bulletin. In fact, faintly pathetic fan letters comprise key "scenes." Totemic Denver themes are touched on here as glancingly as his simple thumb-picking guitar style, backed by a literal-minded slide show that evokes a karaoke video.
And the narration and explication delivered by Jim Newman, a tall towhead in a cowboy shirt who plays Denver's aw-shucks stand-in, is such God-awful hokum that it makes Denver sound like a half-wit with hay for brains.
The music doesn't fare much better. Tender, melancholy ballads, which Denver rendered in an unaffected, occasionally majestic tenor, get beaten here into anthemic pop-Broadway pulp by arranger Jeff Waxman and the over-eager cast. Not all of Denver's original recordings are models of taste, but still: "Take Me Home, Country Roads" and "I'm Sorry" should never be belted, as they are by Jennifer Allen, and the yearning "Leaving on a Jet Plane" doesn't benefit from Terry Burrell's rendition, in which she acts every line, or from the band's hotel-lounge funk backing. (Burrell fares better with a lovely, restrained "Fly Away.") And the more vocal fire the frighteningly intense Nicholas Rodriguez puts into the soaring power ballads, the sillier they sound.
Velvet-piped Valisia Lekae Little and gritty-voiced Lee Morgan come closer to displaying authentic pop stylings, in renditions of "Sunshine on My Shoulders" and "Rocky Mountain High," respectively.
A second-act marital medley artfully splices "Annie's Song" with three other songs of parting and reconciliation. But under Randal Myler's insipid direction, the actors spend much of the show in the dead space between cabaret concertizing and phony ensemble jollity.
The show comes to a kind of life only in the inevitable and catchy "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" and the novelty "Grandma's Feather Bed," which drop all Broadway pretense and go a little country. There's more to John Denver than bouncy barn dances, but you'd never know it from this unfortunate spectacle.