insightful in-depth reviews

cogency
11, Jan 2017
Lutken & Deal, photo by Mark Garvin

John Denver’s enigmatic life

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

The Road: My Life With John Denver. By Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman. Myler directed at Peoples Light & Theatre, Malvern, PA. January 2017

 

The latest musical at Peoples Light has John Denver’s name in its title, and appeared to be of the same genre as the company’s previous shows about Johnnie Cash and Woody Guthrie.

Yet it turned out to be something distinct, and unexpected. The brick walls of James F. Pyne Jr’s set were plastered with posters bearing photos of Denver, and audience members were expecting to see a man playing his part and singing his songs. This was not to be.

A clue was in the show’s title, if you read it closely and noticed one key word: My life with John Denver. This is not John Denver’s life. It’s actually Dan Wheetman’s. And very little of Denver is revealed in the production.

Wheetman was a band member and occasional singer on many of Denver’s tours in the 1970s and 1980s. As the narrator of this offering, Wheetman talks in detail about the grind of long tours, traveling to a new city every day. Beyond that, there’s little that’s substantive about his own life and even less about Denver’s. No anecdotes, no remembered conversations.

Wheetman and Denver were friends, but based on what’s in this script, not very close. The publicly warm and friendly Denver perhaps was incapable of that.

Denver wrote and sung about home and family as he traveled incessantly while leaving family at home. Wheetman tells us that he, too, neglected his wife, who divorced him, but gives scant personal detail. All he reveals is that he “should have been courageous enough to tell [his wife] the truth,” whatever that was. While Denver’s music was about sensitivity, apparently both men were insensitive towards their families.

On the plus side, the show presented 29 songs associated with Denver — 20 of them written by him. The most familiar were “Annie’s Song,”“Take Me Home, Country Roads,”“Sunshine on My Shoulders” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” They were sung through in their entireties, fortunately — and beautifully, not excerpted into medleys as some biographical musicals have done.

The song list included “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” written by John Martin Sommers but made popular by Denver. And that gives a clue to Denver’s dichotomy. He was, in fact, not a country boy but born in New Mexico, reared in Minnesota, then choosing the mountains of Colorado for his home base. He toured as a folksinger before embracing country.

These facts could be utilized, but the script ignores them. Nor does it tell us that Denver had two divorces and episodes of alcoholism. I don’t say this pejoratively; these are facets of a complicated life which also included wonderful environmental and humanitarian activism. The darkness underneath his sunshiny disposition would have made good drama.

Sporting long blond hair, embroidered shirts with American West images, and granny glasses, Denver bridged folk, country and pop music in an optimistic aura. But his personal life was not carefree. His first marriage ended so bitterly that he used a chainsaw to cut their marital bed in half. His second marriage also ended in divorce.

His music holds up well and its presentation made the show well worth seeing. The role of Wheetman was sung and played by David M. Lutken (who previously starred in Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnnie Cash and Woody Sez, about Guthrie) during the first half of this run, and Sam Sherwood, whom I saw later in the run. Both men are excellent singers and musicians with ingratiating personalities. Katie Deal, raised in rural Georgia, sings with an authentic country sound and was a worthy partner in this two-performer production.

Denver, who died in a solo plane crash in 1997 at the age of 53, provided immense pleasure for listeners, and his music did so again here, two decades later.