Friday, January 22, 2016

Country Roads: The Music of John Denver - Plymouth Playhouse (Guest Post)

© 2015 by Ruth Mason. All Rights Reserved
“There’s the Green Mill . . . There’s the Ramada Hotel . . .  is there really a theater here, right by 494?” A bit confused, I finally noticed the small neon sign that pointed the way past the hotel lobby, made my way down the steps and into the Plymouth Playhouse. Imagine my surprise to discover an intimate 200 seat jewel box of a theater with nice wide rows, great lighting and warm sound in the middle of Western Suburban Minneapolis.

I was also a bit confused at the beginning of Country Roads: The Music of John Denver. Where is this going? What kind of show is this? Is this a play or a concert? They started with a few favorites though and I was soon sucked in by the energy and talent of the performers (I hesitate to say “cast”) starring the multi-talented Dennis Curley and led by guitarist and banjo picker Tony Wirth. Country Roads is easy to enjoy. Curley’s vocals are toned beautifully for Denver’s songs, the musicians are very connected with one another and I was frankly a little jealous of the fun they seemed to be having on stage. Obviously they’ve played together before and truly enjoy the music. At best when really rocking on songs like "The Eagle and the Hawk" and "Calypso," the ensemble’s tight harmonies shine beautifully in the more contemplative "Fly Away" and "Perhaps Love," especially in duets between Curley and vocalist Dorian Chalmers. Amy LeGrand’s fiddle solo in "Annie’s Song" is a particular highlight as well as the ensemble’s vocals on "Back Home Again." I also feel the need to call out the lighting in general but especially during "Sunshine On My Shoulders." ISWYDT (see note), designer Jim Eischen!

Calypso — by John Denver from Dennis Curley on Vimeo.

Country Roads is more of a jukebox concert than a play or musical. The songs are interspersed with Curley’s personal reflections, stories from friends about their John Denver memories and audience groups/birthday call outs a la Prairie Home Companion. What’s missing in Country Roads is the story of John Denver himself. As a fan, I welcome information about his life (good and bad), what led him to write particular songs, his activism, and/or his relationships. I think this also is a missed opportunity on the part of the production to bring in those people in every audience who are along for the ride - not really John Denver fans but with someone who is or just riding along with their group to see a nice show. Hearing about John Denver’s life would make the show more meaningful and could only serve to create more fans.

As cute a theater as the Plymouth Playhouse is, I couldn’t help but want to see this show in a different venue. Toes tapping and heads bobbing, the audience sang along softly. But despite the valiant attempt to get us riled up, it felt a bit closeted in a dark basement on a cloudy and cold Thursday afternoon. This show (and the natural imagery in Denver’s music) deserves bright warm sunshine, cold beer and a crowd free to sway and sing along at the top of their lungs. As they’ve done with past shows, I hope they’ll take Country Roads to the MN State Fair or other fairs and festivals this summer to open it up to a more diverse audience who might not think to attend theater at all, let alone in Plymouth, Minnesota. There’s good to be found in John Denver’s ability to turn an appreciation for nature and love into beautiful music. And there’s good to be found in little suburban basement theaters like the Plymouth Playhouse. Hopefully fans of John Denver will be led to The Plymouth Playhouse and vice versa. The existence of both, make Minnesota a great place to experience entertainment.

Thank God I'm A Country Boy — by John Denver from Dennis Curley on Vimeo.

Previewing now and playing through May 1. (contributed by Michelle St. Hilaire)

note: I See What You Did There