'The Road': The songs and sorrows of being in John Denver's band

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Katie Deal and David Lutken in "The Road: My Life with John Denver," at People's Light.

In The Road: My Life With John Denver, now at People's Light, a man and a woman stand side by side on stage against the backdrop of a rustic music venue. “It never got easier,” says the woman. “It never got less exciting,” the man replies without missing a beat. One might expect that they’re talking about a tumultuous romance, but they’re talking about the fact that the man loves his career more than his marriage.

This particular man is Dan Wheetman, a musician and songwriter who toured as part of John Denver’s band at the height of Denver’s career from the mid-'70s through the early '80s. In those years, Denver was not only the best-selling musician in the United States (he ended up earning 12 gold and four platinum albums) but also tremendously popular in Europe, Asia, and Australia.

Wheetman’s longtime music-theater collaborator Randal Myler (a Tony Award nominee) worked with him to turn recollections from those exhilarating years into The Road: My Life With John Denver. The two-hour play strongly resembles a tribute show featuring Denver’s greatest hits, including songs even city-dwelling millennials have probably heard of: “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Rocky Mountain High,” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” The show is best suited for those who love Denver’s music and want to sing along, as the audience is often encouraged to.

Wheetman is played by David Lutken (for the first half of the show’s run through Dec. 18), who returns to People’s Light for his third time as a musical leading man (previously Johnny Cash and Woody Guthrie). In between songs, Lutken-as-Wheetman affably narrates the intense pace and incredible highs of being on tour — traveling to a new city every day and playing to one adoring stadium crowd after another. In their 20s at the time, Wheetman and Denver both struggled to stay connected with their wives and young families at home in Aspen, Colo. Wheetman gradually reveals that both he and Denver paid a high price for neglecting their family lives.

Katie Deal makes her People’s Light debut as Penny, Wheetman’s wife, the mother of their three children, and herself a singer/musician. Each time her husband drops everything to pack his bags for the next tour, Penny stays home to raise the children, alone. Deal’s welcoming country vocal style is well showcased, but Penny is a rather faint character; her primary purpose is to be a duet partner for Wheetman. On stage apparently as in life, she fades into the shadows on cue.

 

Husband and wife play a handful of different instruments and sing together throughout, with the occasional solo. Annoyingly, toward the end of Act 2, Penny ends up being the teary-eyed one singing “I’m Sorry,” a song Denver wrote to apologize to his ex-wife, Annie Martell, for taking her for granted.

 

Among the selection of vintage concert posters on the set (designed by James Pyne Jr.), the most striking one bills Denver as “The Voice of America.” He fills the frame with a charismatic and assured expression, guitar in hand. While the energy level of The Road is likely to be underwhelming for those who feel no emotional connection to Denver’s earnest music, the show does make you want to know more about the compelling figure on that poster. One will have to look beyond the play to satisfy this curiosity. .


 

The Road: My Life With John Denver. Through Jan. 15 at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. Tickets: $28-$41. Information: 610-644-3500, or www.peopleslight.org.