Ivoryton offers us all these John Denver songs and two good performers

By Karen Isaacs / Zip06.com • 04/19/2016 2:21 PM EST • Last updated 04/19/2016 2:26 PM

The Road: My Life with John Denver, now through Sunday April 24th, in Ivoryton Rep., Is well staged with its original cast. With the songs that John Denver wrote or made famous, it’s an above average jukebox musical.

Jukebox musicals are so named because they take a famous artist or composer’s songbook and mix in some kind of plot, either a biography of the person (Jersey Boys) or a typical musical comedy story (Mamma Mia!). Sometimes it’s just a revue (Ain’t Misbehavin ‘). The idea is so ubiquitous that they are now referred to as “jukebox musicals”.

Too often the makers go the easy route – by wrapping up a multitude of songs – all hits plus a few lesser-known numbers – add a little bit of dialogue and voila! – You have a musical.

The road is better than many, but it doesn’t get as high as the three above, or even a few others. Musically it is strong, but dramatically it still needs some work. The show originated in Milwaukee Rep. Last summer; Ivoryton is his second production and includes the original cast: David M. Lutken and Katie Deal.

The show was written by Dan Wheetman and Randal Myler, with Wheetman providing the musical direction and Myler directing.

Dan Wheetman is the character from “My Life”. He is a musician who toured with Denver for over seven years and was his neighbor in Aspen. The show begins with Wheetman talking about his teenage 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. In all honesty, this section could be trimmed a bit. The group he was performing with was asked to open up for Denver, and Danny took to the streets with John Denver.

Over the years they toured both the US and the world. Danny went from being a member of the opening act to being a member of Denver’s band and a backing vocalist. Interwoven with Danny’s story – his career, the toll the path takes on family life and relationships – is the parallel story of Denver’s life: the artistic successes and the inevitable loss of popularity and the strains on his marriage. (Denver died in 1997 at the age of 53 in a crash on his personal experimental plane).

The action both adds to and sometimes detracts from our enjoyment. The show begins with a recording of Denver’s vocals as the two artists move gently on stage, creating harmony. A photo of Denver in the back of the stage is lit up like a portrait of the Madonna. From there Danny starts the narration, but it took me a while to really understand what was going on; who was this character? It wasn’t until halfway through the first act that I finally realized that the story should be about Danny’s life; Maybe the night I saw it I was just slow.

But the story goes on, mixed with Denver’s hits. As a dramatic piece, too much is told and told instead of showing us.

What makes this show so enjoyable are the two very talented performers. Luken was last seen at TheatreWorks in Hartford on the Woody Sez show, where he played Woody Guthrie. The man is an accomplished musician; Not only does he sing, he also plays the guitar, banjo and harmonica with ease. He also has a lanky charm that will make you like him. He is accompanied on stage by Deal, who is simply called “the singer” even though she is much more than that. She also plays the role of Danny’s girlfriend / wife. She is also a good musician who plays several instruments and has a naturally sweet voice.

The two work so well together. You feel their chemistry.

Other pluses of this production include the fine direction by Randal Myler and the musical direction by Dan Wheetman. Myler has also given his two cast members a variety of appropriate moves – from gentle vibrations to a kick-stomp dance. The scenic design by Daniel Nischan is reminiscent of every Roadhouse Country / Western or Folkie meeting place. Vickie Blake coordinated the simple costumes and Marcus Abbott takes care of the effective lighting.

The big plus of The Road is of course the music. You get a lot of it and it’s well done. Audiences are encouraged to join some of Denver’s most iconic songs: Country Roads, Rocky Mountain High, Leaving on a Jet Plane, Annie’s Song, and others. It includes some Denver songs that I was unfamiliar with – “This Old Guitar”, “Grandpa’s Feather Bed” and “Like a Sad Song”. Not all songs are from Denver. We hear some of the songs Danny sang – “The Last Thing on My Mind” by Tom Paxton, “Jambalaya” by Hank Williams and “Johnny Be Good” by Chuck Berry, as well as some songs by Wheetman: “Honey Be There” and “The Christmas Wish” that made Kermit the frog famous.

Lutken and Deal make The Road a wonderful evening of music. One could wish that the narrative was shorter, but the charm and talent of the two actors and the music that is so memorable all make for a very entertaining evening at the theater.

The Road: My Life with John Denver takes place at the Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton through Sunday April 24th. Tickets are available at ivortyonplayhouse.org or by calling 860-767-7318.

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