A Glowing Tribute
“The Road: My Life with John Denver”
By Brooks Appelbaum, Special to the Shoreline Times
Ivoryton Playhouse is opening its 2016 season with “The Road: My Life with John Denver,” a pleasingly unconventional, heart-felt, and beautifully performed musical tribute. Rather than attempting to re-create Denver as a character, co-writers Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman (who played in Denver’s band for seven years) have made the smart decision to tell Denver’s story through Wheetman’s experience as his band member. This straightforward approach frees the songs from the burden of impersonation and accomplishes what a tribute ideally should: it sends us back to Denver’s own singing and reminds us what a remarkable artist he was.
Gracefully directed by Mylar, with Wheetman as the Music Director, “The Road” is best thought of as a low-key, intimate folk/country concert, with Danny’s life events providing the between-song patter. With self-deprecating humor and rueful wisdom, Danny, played by the terrific David M. Lutken, tells us about several rise-and-fall episodes in his musical career, both on the way to his association with Denver and after that association has ended And he sets that career against a difficult marriage to his first love, Penny, who is left at home as he travels the world. Denver, of course, famously married his own first love, Annie, and he, too, found it impossible to balance his career (in his case, as a super-star) with marriage and fatherhood.
The writers play up this parallel, thus making room for some of Denver’s most moving love ballads. In the most poignant lines of the show, Danny reminds us (and himself) that life on the road takes its toll. “Be careful what you pay with because you will pay,” says Danny, sadly. “Sometimes with your wife and family.”
The immensely likeable Lutken (last seen at Ivoryton Playhouse in “Ring of Fire”) is also a consummate musician, as is his musical partner, Katie Deal. Lutken can play a mean guitar as well as a mellow one; we see this especially in his and a sparkling Deal’s rendition of “Johnny Be Good,” one of Denver’s favorites.
Making her debut at Ivoryton, Deal delivers Denver’s ballads, playful tunes (notably “Grandma’s Feather Bed”), and country music with sweet, sometimes sly, always perfectly tuned emotional perception. And whether singing or not, Deal knows how to act. She embodies both Penny and Annie, depending on what song Lutken is singing, and be sure to watch her face as she listens to him talk about the joys and disappointments of marriage. In joy, she glows; in sorrow, one can almost see the tears, barely held back, glistening.
In addition to giving us a full evening of John Denver’s wonderful music, Myler and Wheetman have captured the time period and varied the evening by adding songs (most of them upbeat) by other songwriters. The evening opens with Denver’s recorded voice singing “Aspenglow,” as Deal and Lutken listen with bowed heads, harmonizing ever so softly. Then as Danny begins his tale with the folk movement of the mid-1960’s, they move into Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind.” Also included are songs by Hank Williams, Danny Wheetman himself, John Summers, Butch Hancock, and Chuck Berry.
Daniel Nischen’s colorful set, Vickie Blake’s costumes, Tate R. Burmeister’s sound design, and Marcus Abbott’s unobtrusive lighting all work together to foreground the music and the performances.
Though Danny alludes to Denver’s “complexity,” he says little about Denver’s emotional struggles beyond the ill-fated marriage. However, because the show is so clear about it’s perspective, from the title forward, we can’t say “The Road” makes promises it fails to keep. Fortunately, if we do want an in-depth look at Denver, we can turn to a fine documentary: “John Denver: Country Boy.”
Meanwhile, come to Ivoryton to let terrific musicians remind you of Denver’s incredible talent, huge heart, and profound sweetness. And if you come on a Sunday, you can join the hootenanny after the show. No one pays the Deal and Lutken for these; they just love music and have their own huge hearts.
“The Road: My Life with John Denver” runs through April 24. Tickets are available by calling the Ivoryton Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting the website at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org (Group rates are available by calling the box office for information.) The Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton.