A musician, singer, and songwriter who toured for eight years with the titular folk star and lived near him in Aspen, Colorado, before his tragic death in a plane crash at the age of 53, Dan Wheetman reflects on the evolution of their professional careers, personal relationships, and parallel trajectories in The Road: My Life with John Denver. The autobiographical musical/tribute concert, now making its regional premiere at People’s Light, is the latest offering in the company’s “American Songwriters Series” (which will continue in January with Loudon Wainwright III’s Surviving Twin). Co-written by Wheetman, who arranged the music, and long-time collaborator Randal Myler, who directs, the show gives an insider’s perspective of life on the road and intimate insights into the hearts and minds of the roving men, while revisiting the popular songs that defined them.
Guest artist David M. Lutken, who previously starred in Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash and Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, returns to Malvern in the lead role of Wheetman, delivering his backstory in engaging direct address. His personable manner, casual demeanor, and comfort with the audience are matched by his downhome musical style (the multi-talented Lutken also serves as Music Director). The two-hander also features the impressive People’s Light debut of Katie Deal as Wheetman’s long-suffering wife Penny, who recalls, along with him, the funny, happy, poignant, and agonizing episodes of the past. Like Lutken (who plays the role through December 18th, to be replaced by Sam Sherwood, who appeared with him in Ring of Fire, beginning on December 20), she has a natural charm, genuine emotions, an exceptional vocal range, and a virtuoso mastery of an array of country and folk instruments (they perform on guitar, banjo, harmonica, tambourine, and more).
Together the pair covers such iconic hits by Denver as “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Rocky Mountain High,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Back Home Again,” and “Sunshine on my Shoulders,” with spot-on harmonies and heartfelt solos, while encouraging the audience to sing along and to clap to the beat. The musical numbers also include works written by Wheetman (“Honey Be There” and “The Christmas Wish,” for which Lutken amusingly imitates the voice of the Muppets’ Kermit the Frog, who sang it on Denver’s Christmas album), the ebullient “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” (written by John Martin Sommers but made famous by Denver), Jim Connor’s spirited “Grandma’s Feather Bed” (to which Deal does some country stomping), and other popular songs of the time that had an impact on Denver and/or Wheetman (Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya,” and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny Be Goode,” which has Lutken mimicking the performer’s legendary moves).
Each of the songs defines a significant moment in the highlights and low points of the men’s lives, underscoring their appreciation for the glory of nature, the excitement of their success, their devotion to music, and the “toll taken by being on the road.” Among the most affecting numbers is Deal’s beautiful rendition of Denver’s “Annie’s Song,” whose romantic lyrics, inspired by his consuming love for his wife, both he and Wheetman–and not “the road”–failed to live up to in their ill-fated marriages. Wheetman notes, too late, that “pain makes me think” and that they “should have been courageous enough to tell [their wives] the truth,” but ultimately, like his friend, feels “no regrets.” Consequently, it becomes hard to reconcile the sensitivity of their music with the men’s insensitivity towards their families, thereby rendering them more real, and flawed, than the public persona of Denver, known for his ever-present smile and enthusiastic “far out!”
A rustic brick and wood set by James F. Pyne, Jr. has the look of both a typical coffee house, at which the men played in their early careers, and the backstage of a more professional venue, with a clearly marked “stage door.” Lily Fossner’s lighting changes from generalized, to directed spotlights for the solos and duets, to darkness between the chronological sequences and musical numbers.
In both its performance and design, The Road: My Life with John Denver gives context, focus, and meaning to its roster of well-known songs, which fans in the audience can’t help but join in singing!
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one intermission and an encore.
The Road: My Life with John Denver plays through Sunday, January 15, 2017, at People’s Light, Steinbright Stage – 39 Conestoga Road, in Malvern, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (610) 644-3500 or purchase them online.