By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Sep 14, 2015 at 3:03 PM

One of the best things about live theater is how it so often turns out to be something that blows  your expectations to dust.

That was the occasion Sunday night when the Milwaukee Rep opened "Back Home Again: On the Road with John Denver."

I didn’t love John Denver when he was big, always thinking he was kind of saccharine and goody-goody. How in the world was I ever going to enjoy an evening of his music nearly two decades after he crashed a plane into the mountains and died?

Enter David Lutken and Katie Deal, and goodbye doubt.

So many singer-focused shows are nothing more than a string of hits put together with a nodding pass at the story of the singer’s life. For example, there is a tour of Sam Cooke going around America that is better suited to a cruise ship than a live theater stage.

This production at the Stackner Cabaret is, strikingly, not the story of John Denver. It’s the story of someone named Dan Wheetman, a musician, actor, writer and director. He co-wrote this show with Randal Myler.

"Back Home Again" is the story of the American musician, the singer-songwriters, the troubadours who cross countries and paths with each other, having moments of riding the rocket mixed with long periods of being grounded.

Wheetman spent eight years in Denver’s band, playing all over the world. But the paths of the two men crossed over a much longer period of time – as players in a folk festival and as an opening act on a 53-gig in 50-days tour.

He was never Denver’s best friend and makes no pretension that the two men were especially close. Rather, the events in Wheetman’s life seemed to mirror those in Denver’s life so often, that this is the way Wheetman pays tribute to Denver and his music.

The two men ended up in Aspen about the same time. They each got married about the same time. They each had children about the same time. Both men let the glories of the road tempt them, and both suffered the price. Both got divorced about the same time.

"The road takes a toll, and you have to be careful what you pay with," Wheetman says. "(Our) children were innocent bystanders at a terrible, terrible event."

The story that Wheetman tells isn’t the most compelling you will ever hear, but it is a meaningful bridge between songs that, at one point, thrilled this country. After all, Denver had more hits than Elvis, and that obviously says something.

The surprises started right from the first light when Lutken and his guitar sang the little-known "Starwood in Aspen" to introduce us to the dreamy Denver. From then on, it was two hours of the breadth of Denver’s music, dreamy, sugary, melancholy, funny and soaring in its melody.

At no point are we ever truly introduced to Lutken as Wheetman or to Deal as his wife, Penny. But they don’t need introductions.

The story and the music let us know that within these two souls there is a whole bunch of stuff, but most of all, there is music.

I think Lutken and Deal touched each other just once, a brief holding of hands, in the entire two hours, but this play is a brilliant example of how you don’t need to be physical to have an intimate love affair with another person, especially when it’s the music that binds.

These two have a stunning charisma.

Everyone knows that "Annie’s Song" was written for Denver’s wife, Annie. In this production, Wheetman let’s us in on the fact that John and Annie were having troubles, traced to his constant touring.

And then they hit us with the song, sung not by Lutken but by a wistful Deal. It builds a whole new layer to a tune a lot of guys have wished they had written for their girls and a tune that lots of girls wished their guys had sung to them.

It’s that kind of surprising structure that makes this show so much fun.

The brilliance of Lutken and Deal wrap the whole thing in a bright ribbon for everyone in the audience. Lutken was a marvel last year in the Woody Guthrie show at the Rep. This one is no less a triumph. He’s a marvelous guitar player and has a presence on stage that is magical.

Deal is also an actor who can sing. Her character is less well defined but no less appealing. Their voices alone are glorious, and when they sing together, it is the stuff that fantasies are made of.

I walked out of the cabaret after the show kind of ashamed that I had been so leery of a John Denver musical evening. But I was also reminded how the glories of live theater can just shake you up and turn you and your expectations inside out.

"Back Home Again" runs through Nov. 8 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.