John Denver territory, Christmas style

Special to The Times

Musing on his career, the late John Denver said, "My purpose in performing is to communicate the joy I experience in living." That viewpoint adorns "Back Home Again: A John Denver Holiday Concert" at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura. This entrancing revue by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman could not be more sincerely entertaining, thanks to dulcet singers Jim Newman and Gail Bliss and a festive band.

Fashioned after Denver's annual Christmas specials, "Back Home Again" plies its wares with fetching simplicity. Western-clad musicians enter and casually tune up, and Newman launches the show with Steve Weisberg's loping "Christmas for Cowboys," backed by panoramic shots of range riders (many of the photos projected throughout were taken by Denver himself). Bliss croons Denver's "Aspenglow" with open-throated expertise, followed by the rousing title song, and a Colorado Christmas cantata ensues.

It blends sacred and secular music with unassuming patter and enormous audience regard, sort of a "Rocky Mountain Home Companion," minus Keillorisms and commercials. "Silent Night" and "Away in the Manger" jockey with Jim Connor's "Grandma's Feather Bed" and Bill and Taffy Danoff's "Please, Daddy (Don't Get Drunk for Christmas)," here done as a purposeful singalong that stops the show.

After longtime Denver collaborator Wheetman introduces "Matthew" as his favorite Denver song (mine too), Act 1 closes on a buoyant rendition of "Thank God I'm a Country Boy." Exactly, and director Myler aims to celebrate Denver without canonizing him, while musical director Wheetman knows just how much gloss is required. He and colleagues Douglas Clegg and David P. Jackson play multiple instruments with entitled panache and winking humor, and both soloists are superb.

Newman initially seems a shade more Broadway than homespun. Yet the purity of his chops and easy charm are utterly apt, and he opens up by the number, with a stunning "First Noel" and impish "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." The rich-voiced Bliss, incapable of a false note, blends thrillingly with Newman in the duets and tosses off repertory as varied as "What Child Is This?" and "Sweet Surrender." The show ends with Denver's heartfelt "I Want to Live," and a more valid philosophy for our troubled times is impossible to conceive. Here, as everywhere, "Back Home Again" finds the essential humanity within concept and material, producing the lingering glow of an instant seasonal classic.


'Back Home Again'

Where: Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura

When: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Dec. 24

Price: $26 to $49

Contact: (805) 667-2900

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

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