By Karen Isaacs
The Road: My Life with John Denver now at Ivoryton Rep through Sunday, April 24, is getting a fine production with its original cast. Featuring the songs written or made famous by John Denver, it’s better than average jukebox musical.
Jukebox musicals are so-named because they take the songbook of a famous performer or composer and mix in some sort of plot – either a biography of the person (Jersey Boys) or a typical musical comedy story line (Mamma Mia!). Sometimes it is just a revue (Ain’t Misbehavin’). The idea has become so ubiquitous that they are now referred to as “jukebox musicals.”
Too often, the creators are taking the easy way out – packaging a variety of songs – all the hits plus a few lesser known numbers – add a little dialogue and voila! — you have a musical.
The Road is better than many, but it does not reach the heights of the three mentioned above or even some others. Musically it is strong; but dramatically it needs still some work. The show originated at Milwaukee Rep last summer; Ivoryton is its second production and it features the original cast: David M. Lutken and Katie Deal.
The show is written by Dan Wheetman and Randal Myler with Wheetman providing the musical direction and Myler directing.
Dan Wheetman is the “my life” character. He is a musician who toured with Denver for seven plus years as well as being his neighbor in Aspen. The show opens with Wheetman talking about his teenager years in southern California; how he got into music during the folk era and ended up in Aspen where he fell in love with the area and a young woman. Quite honestly, this section could use some pruning. The group he performed with was asked to serve as Denver’s opening act and off Danny went on the road with John Denver.
Over the course of years, they toured both the US and the world. Danny went from a member of the opening act group to a member of Denver’s band and a back-up singer. Interwoven into Danny’s story – of his career, the toll the road takes on family life and relationships – is the parallel story of Denver’s life: The artistic successes and the inevitable falling off in popularity as well as the strains on his marriage. (Denver died in a crash of his personal experimental plane in 1997 at the age of 53).
The story line both contributes to our enjoyment and at times detracts from it. The show opens with a recording of Denver singing while the two on-stage performers move gently and provide harmony. A photo of Denver at the back of the stage is lit like a portrait of the Madonna. From there Danny begins the narration, but it took me a while to truly understand what was going on; who was this character. Only about halfway into the first act, did I finally realize that the story was to be about Danny’s life; maybe I was just slow the night I saw it.
But the story goes on intermixed with Denver’s hits. As a dramatic piece there is too much narration and telling rather than showing us.
What makes this show so enjoyable are the two very talented performers. David M. Lefken was last seen at TheaterWorks in Hartford in the show, Woody Sez, where he played Woody Guthrie. The man is a consummate musician; not only does he sing, but he plays the guitar, banjo and mouth organ effortlessly. He also has a lanky charm that makes you like him. He’s joined on stage by Katie Deal who is called simply “the singer” though she is much more than that. She plays the role of Danny’s girlfriend/wife, as well. She too, is a fine musician playing multiple instruments and has a naturally sweet voice.
The two work so well together. You feel their chemistry.
The other plusses in this production is the fine direction by Randal Myler and musical direction by Dan Wheetman. Myler has also given his two performers a variety of appropriate movements – from gentle sways to a kick stomping dance. The scenic design by Daniel Nischan reminds you of any roadhouse country/western or folkie hangout. Vickie Blake has coordinated the simple costumes and Marcus Abbott handles the effective lighting.
The big plus for The Road, is, of course, the music. You get lots of it and it is well done. The audience is encouraged to join in on a number of the most well-known Denver songs: “Country Roads,” “Rocky Mountain High,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Annie’s Song” and others. Included are some Denver songs that I was not familiar with – “This Old Guitar,” “Grandpa’s Feather Bed” and “Like a Sad Song.” Not all the songs are by Denver. We hear some of the songs Danny sang – “The Last Thing on My Mind” by Tom Paxton, “Jambalaya,” by Hank Williams, “Johnny Be Good” by Chuck Berry as well as some songs written by Wheetman: “Honey Be There” and “The Christmas Wish” which Kermit the Frog made famous.
Lutken and Deal make The Road a delightful evening of music. You might wish the narration was shorter but the charm and talent of the two performers and the music that is so memorable contribute to a very enjoyable evening of theater.
The Road: My Life with John Denver is at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton, through Sunday, April 24. For tickets visit ivortyonplayhouse.org or call 860-767-7318.
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