The John Denver Story

 I was never much a fan of John Denver – too clean cut for me, and all those syrupy ballads – but this show opened my ears to his prodigious musical talent. 

 Presented by: Bold JackVenue: Atheneum Theatre, Melbourne  Thursday, 30 June, 2011
Rick Price in The John Denver StoryI was never much a fan of John Denver – too clean cut for me, and all those syrupy ballads – but this show opened my ears to his prodigious musical talent. However The John Denver Story, from the producer who brought us The Man in Black – The Johnny Cash Story, has such a weak narrative the evening really is more a tribute gig than story. 
Fronting the show and singing Denver’s songs is industry institution Rick Price. Price’s voice doesn’t have the same reedy sound of Denver’s, but he is a very fine singer, and communicates what seems to be a genuine love and respect for Denver’s work. What he isn’t though is an actor, and the banality of the script makes his job even harder. The momentum is continually lost between songs, and it was only after interval, when Price loosened up and started ad-libbing that we were all able to relax.
What is fantastic is the music. Backing Price is the Colorado Quartet, made up of topflight musicians. Ed Bates on Pedal Steel leads Tim Matthew (Bass), Luke Moller (Violin and Mandolin) and Roger Bergodaz (Drums) arrangements will make even the most die-hard country music cynic weep. Watching these guys do their ‘thang’ is probably worth the price of the ticket alone. 
Too bad about the script. What is presented is a sketch of an almost saintly Denver, emphasising his humanitarian and environmental work while skimming over his troubled personal life. It seems his response to relationship difficulties was to go on the road and write yet another smash hit love song (lucky us, pity the poor wives), and the question mark still surrounding his death – did he kill himself? – isn’t dealt with at all. Perhaps out of a desire to not offend the loyal fans who are the target audience, the writer has missed the opportunity to flesh out a character that most of us only know as that squeaky clean “Rocky Mountain High” guy.
Script aside, there are a number of high points in the music. The night gets going properly with “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and ends with a touchingly beautiful rendition of “Sunshine on my Shoulders” with Price on piano. This really is a show for rusted on Denver fans (of which there are many), and I predict that as the season progresses and Price takes charge of the stage it will find a ready audience.
Until 10 July,

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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