You can go home again but Seattle Rep's 'John Denver Holiday Concert' doesn't get us there

If sincerity and intention count for anything, the salute "Back Home Again: A John Denver Holiday Concert" offers a pleasant if rather unexceptional dose of country twang. Think of it as a John Denver Christmas album without John Denver.

Despite talented musicians, a half-dozen bales of straw and 40-plus poinsettia plants scattered across the stage, the concert is a lukewarm experience that never quite engages the heart. Fortunately, it's not a long show - about an hour and 20 minutes with one intermission.

"Back Home Again" was directed by Randal Myler and co-conceived by Myler and Dan Wheetman. They also collaborated on "Fire on the Mountain" and "It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues," two shows that previously played at Seattle Rep. Their current musical homage consists of 25 songs, a mix of John Denver hits with familiar - and unfamiliar - Christmas carols and a few, very few, spoken memories about Denver. Throughout the performance, a slide show plays on the big screen behind the musicians. Naturally, it begins with a huge image of Denver, followed by a barrage of scenic photos of Colorado, most of them taken by Denver himself. Snow-covered plains, mountains and trees dissolved into herds of cows and wild horses, an American eagle in flight and, near the end, Denver in a Santa suit embracing his baby son.

Wheetman, who guides the music, plays several instruments with equal virtuosity. Mandolin, banjo and guitar player David Miles Keenan is sensational. Ditto for David P. Jackson on bass and Nora Devonie on keyboards. Vocalist Gail Bliss is a good singer with a winning way. The affable Denny Brooks sings and plays guitar, though his voice occasionally strains when he reaches for those high notes. At some point, everybody onstage sings. And at other times, they ask the audience to sing along on familiar tunes.

But at the performance I attended, the audience was either shy or not in the mood. Except for the woman sitting directly behind me. Bedecked in a festive Santa hat, she had a yen to warble along, even during the onstage solos. To my occasional good fortune, she didn't know all of them.

Jackson, Brooks and Wheetman all have a history with Denver. And it's obvious they revered the now-deceased folk superstar. But sometimes their show was just too precious. Like when Brooks informed the audience there was a pop quiz. "Who can name Santa's eight reindeer?" he cheerfully chirped. My neighbor quickly corrected him: "There were nine." Then she started reciting the names. But her voice went unheard as the singer launched a lively rendition of "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Alas, the combination of "Rudolf" and my singing neighbor was enough to make Dolly Parton gag.

However, there were a few pleasing moments. "Grandma's Feather Bed" delighted the audience - for good reason, if you've ever slept on one. Jackson charmed us with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," when he sang and accompanied himself on the acoustic bass. He struck some mischievous minor chords and sang a luscious low note at song's end. And Wheetman's rendition of his favorite Denver tune, "Matthew," was quite touching.

We also heard fan favorites, like "Annie's Song," "Poems, Prayers and Promises," "Perhaps Love," "Back Home Again," "Sweet Surrender" and "I Want to Live," among others. As far as the carols go, there's something unsettling, almost alienating, about hearing a country version of "Silent Night," being sung in German.

Denver's dedication to humanitarian and environmental causes is well documented. A beloved homespun hero, he even dared to disagree with the policies of our "Bedtime for Bonzo" president, Ronald Reagan. To this end, the much-heralded activist Denver and his award-winning music deserve respect and adulation.

Although his songs speak to our hearts and humanity, they didn't always translate in this pleasant but mostly forgettable endeavor. The big numbers, "Take Me Home Country Roads" and "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," lacked momentum, despite Wheetman's fine fiddling and Keenan's magnificent mandolin. The only real excitement often was generated by bold audience members who dared to snap photos with their cellphones during the performance.

I'm no sophisticate, although once upon a time in New York City I did sit on a butt-numbing wooden bench through Peter Brook's five-hour production of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" without intermission. But there was also a time, when I too was a country girl. So I've traveled those roads, danced at shivarees and slept on hand-me-down-from-grandma feather beds in the winter. I've also survived big holiday gatherings with folksy Missouri-born uncles, aunts and cousins. So I get the show's well-intended family-and-peace message.

Maybe big-city living has turned me into a Scroogette. Or maybe my flu shot rendered me immune to half-hearted attempts to convey the Christmas spirit. Whatever. I did not leave the theater with a heart full of holly or an urge to play Santa to Tiny Tim's country clan. And while I wouldn't mind spending the holidays with a chiseled-faced, singing cowboy, I draw the line at a hokey hoedown and faux celebration.

Yessiree, I'm holding out for the real thing. What I'm trying to say is, I wanted more. Unfortunately, I left with less.

'Back Home Again: A John Denver Holiday Concert'
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Tuesday-Sunday through Dec. 24
Tickets $10-$58, 443-2222 or

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