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Bestselling novelist Stephen King proves himself less adept as a debuting librettist in Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, his long-gestating musical collaboration with pop/rock star John Mellencamp. This Southern Gothic musical premiered to decidedly mixed notices at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater in 2012 and is now touring the country, playing one-night dates in concert venues. Minimally staged and featuring a cast that includes such well-known names as Billy Burke (the Twilight series) and Gina Gershon (Bound, Showgirls), the show seems to be angling for a Broadway berth. But despite the strength of Mellencamp’s roots music score, King’s problematic book proves a major impediment.
The convoluted plot concerns the tragic past and potentially tragic future of the McCandless family, headed by patriarch Joe (Burke). His two grown sons Drake (Joe Tippett) and Frank (Lucas Kavner) are deeply at odds over their varying fortunes and their romantic rivalry for the attentions of Anna (Kylie Brown). Their situation mirrors a tragic incident that occurred decades earlier involving Joe’s own brothers (Travis Smith, Peter Albrink), which he witnessed as a young boy (Zac Ballard). Desperately attempting to keep the peace in her no-nonsense way is Joe’s alcoholic wife Monique (Gershon).
Featuring ghostly figures clad mostly in white who periodically comment on the proceedings, the Mississippi-set musical also introduces such characters as a devil-like, malevolent figure dubbed “The Shape” (Jake La Botz), who seems to be orchestrating the dramatic mayhem, and the “Zydeco Cowboy” (Jesse Lenat), who acts as the evening’s interlocutor.
The show features the author’s trademark mordant humor — “Is hell as hot as the preacher says?” one character asks the Shape, to which he replies, “Yes, but it’s a dry heat” — and preoccupation with the supernatural. But King’s book is an ungainly affair that fails to convey its convoluted storyline in coherent fashion.
Fortunately, the dialogue is relatively minimal. Much of the running time is taken up by Mellencamp’s rousing score, which is performed by an onstage four-piece ensemble comprised of members of his own band. The terrific songs are further enhanced by the superb musical direction of T Bone Burnett, whose expertise with this sort of material is fully evident.
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Among the musical highlights is the classic rock-sounding “How Many Days,” put over forcefully by Burke sounding uncannily like Mellencamp; the stirring, gospel-tinged “Tear This Country Down,” powerfully led by the big-voiced Eric Moore; and the bluesy “Put Me in the Ground,” sounding like it could have been composed in the 1930s. The vocal performances are uniformly strong, and Gershon acquits herself nicely with such numbers as “Monique’s Song” and “On Belle Reve Time.”
While the songs don’t necessarily do much to advance the plot, they compare favorably to their composer’s best efforts and are varied enough to sustain interest throughout.
The same can’t be said of the storyline, which meanders considerably and offers the performers few opportunities to make much of an impression. The exception is Burke, displaying a compelling charisma as the troubled paterfamilias. Country fans will note the appearance of Carlene Carter, delivering strong vocals but given unfortunately little to do.
Director Susan V. Booth‘s minimal staging on a set consisting of little more than a spooky backdrop doesn’t exactly help bring the story to life. And the generally cavernous venues into which the show has been booked — in New York it played at the 3,000 plus-seat Beacon Theatre — further reduce the dramatic immediacy.
The tour, which ends Dec. 5 in San Francisco, includes a Dec. 4 stop at Los Angeles’ Saban Theatre.
Cast: Billy Burke, Gina Gershon, Jake La Botz, Jesse Lenat, Joe Tippett, Lucas Kavner, Kylie Brown, Eric Moore, Travis Smith, Peter Albrink, Kate Ferber, Zac Ballard, Carlene Carter, Joe Jung, Gwen Hughes, Rob Lawhon
Director: Susan V. Booth
Music and lyrics: John Mellencamp
Book: Stephen King
Musical direction: T Bone Burnett
Set and lighting designer: Steven Cohen
Choreographer: Daniel Pelzig
Presented by AEG Live
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