Stephen King and John Mellencamp...Ghost Brothers? Maybe.

My Review of "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County"

Libretto by Stephen King

Music and Lyrics by John Mellencamp
Musical Director: T Bone Burnett
Director: Susan V. Booth
I don’t go to see a lot of live theater. I saw the traveling version of The Lion King in San Diego… I’ve seen several university theater productions including Grease and Little Shop of Horrors… I’ve even been involved in a few productions—I was the guitarist for a local theater production of Grease back in high school and I filmed versions of Godspell, Coppelia, Agnes of God and a few others for that same group back when I thought I might want to be a filmmaker (I still do!). I even married a thespian. Just ask her. :)

I told you all that to tell you this. I’m not really qualified to review a theater production, but I’m going to do it anyway. So read this. I didn't get a lot of sleep last night :)

As a horror writer and lover of all things creepy, I couldn’t not go see a live show that was in part created by His Highness, Stephen King (responsible for the libretto), and John Mellencamp—hold the Cougar. Mellencamp initiated the project based on a ghost story he was told about a cabin he was buying on Lake Monroe right here in Southern Indiana. This musical play is a ghost story of the Southern gothic variety and they’ve been banging away at it for thirteen years. A magic number in the world of the strange and superstitious. To round out the creative minds behind it, they boys brought in T-Bone Burnett as a musical director and for once, being in Bloomington, Indiana had its perks, because we got the opening night for the touring show.
King and Mellencamp have claimed in other interviews that the collaboration between “non-collaborators” has made them like brothers, going so far as to say they’ve not had a bad word between them during its entire development process. Believe that if you will. I, for one, hope it’s true. The finished product—even though Ghost Brothers of Darkland County is considered a work in progress—“Art is never finished, only abandoned,” Mellencamp said in an interview with Bloom Magazine—is a mixture of some very cool things.

I’ll try my best not to spoil the story for you—and I definitely won’t give away the ending, but there will be some details in the next couple paragraphs. Read at your own risk.
The story is an old one. Competitive brothers Jack and Andy McCandless were brought to the point of murder by their love of the same woman, Jenna, back on Lake Belle Reve, Louisiana, 1967. There’s a twist here though in that the brothers mentioned in the title aren’t necessarily the forefront of the story. The show is about their nephews, 20-somethings Frank and Drake McCandless, who are following in the Ghost Brother’s footsteps, still in Lake Belle Reve, but in 2007. Frank is a musician that plays a local honky-tonk hoping but failing to catch the eye of a record producer. Drake, his younger brother just landed his first book deal—half a million dollars worth—and not only that, but he is engaged to Anna…who is Frank’s ex girlfriend.
Frank and Drake have been summoned to the family cabin by their father, Joe, and mother, Monique, because Joe has something he wants to tell the whole family, something that has haunted him since he was a young boy. The truth about what happened to his older brothers forty years ago and why he still wakes up screaming in the middle of the night.
Joe hopes to prevent Frank and Drake from continuing on their path and repeating history. Monique wants her sons back—the best friends she remembers from just a few years ago, and she wants her husband back from the haunted place he has crawled into. Drake wants out of his old hometown and wants the support his mother only seems to give to Frank…and Joe wants the haunting to stop.

Helping the story along are some interesting characters. The Shape sits house right (stage left) and is a tattooed, leather wearing smart-ass representing the devil. House left (stage right) is The Zydeco Cowboy who represents the light side…and in the middle, where most of the performance takes place, you have either the Dreamland Café (purgatory), the McCandless cabin, or a handful of other settings denoted simply by a single screen in the back with projected images.
The Zydeco Cowboy narrates us from one scene to the next and The Shape fires off some comical quips about the true nature of man. “He’s always around”, Zydeco says and it proves true. The Shape tells us things like “People prefer songs about fuckin’ or killin.” And on the subject of church, he says “I get bad reviews there. Always have…any true artist does.” He also seems quite happy about the lust, betrayal and violence that ensues joyously claiming, “It’s like a two for Tuesday!” and “This is what you call your basic clean sweep!” The Shape is funny.

In the Dreamland Café, the proprietor is a man named Dan Coker who is constantly trying to move folks out of the bar letting them know they don’t have to go home, but they can’t stay there. With all the tragedy in the McCandless clan, none of the ghosts seem to want to move on.
The production is done in the style of an old-time radio show, the type with a live audience. This both works and doesn’t… I’ll start with the bad because there’s so little of it and then move on to why the show works.
As an old time radio show, there isn’t much in the way of set design or costuming. The players generally stand in the center and perform. Each wore a headset, but for show, they sang into an antique microphone that was center stage on a stand. All players were on stage at all times, taking a seat in the background when they weren’t performing. The band was also on stage behind The Zydeco Cowboy so there was a lot to look at. The problem is this, there was not a lot going on visually. With no real sets to move around, the actors were forced to pantomime and for the most part, they did a wonderful job, but this is a musical performance. Some of the more seasoned vets had great stage presence with their dialogue and their songs…but some just stood like statues to sing. A little choreography would’ve gone a long way and it did for “Tear This Cabin Down” which was the most energetic ensemble number.
Also, at times during ensemble acting, there was no motion in the characters at all and it was tough to tell who was actually speaking. Folks in the front few rows may have had an easier time.
If I had one more complaint, it would be length. Could’ve been some opening night issues, but there were a few sections that seemed to drag on and trimming ten or fifteen minutes wouldn’t hurt. Act one was just over an hour and act two lasted about 75 minutes with a 20 minute intermission.
Performance-wise, the show was brilliant. The acting was solid all the way around with standouts being Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek: Into Darkness) who played Joe, and Emily Skinner (Tony nominated stage actress). Show stealers included Eric Moore as Dan Coker, Jake LaBotz as The Shape and Zac Ballard as ten-year old Joe—kid was adorable. Some of the background players were obvious rookies, and it really showed in Act I, but the cast settled for Act II and got a standing ovation for their work.

All vocal performances were excellent, some mind blowing and the band was fantastic. The music ranged from rock to country to gospel to zydeco and blues and while every tune was different, you could hear a little Mellencamp in each one, he has an ever maturing sound and a style that is finally all his own. Songs to watch for are “Tear This Cabin Down”, “Truth”, “Home Again” and anything performed by Eric Moore—dude has skills and a bluesy, gospel tone that will stand up the hairs on your neck.
Story wise, it was a mix of Mellencamp’s lyrics, used to develop the characters, and King’s story for the narrative bits. King’s presence is felt throughout. That being said, it isn’t scary. There are very tense moments, twists, and there are ghosts, but they serve as the Greek Chorus. The ghost brothers and the spirit of Jenna and Dan Coker give us some insight to the events of 1967 while guiding the 2007 characters to do what they hope is the right thing. Supernatural? Yep. Horror? No, not at all, but it isn’t meant to be. The story is tragic and has moments of pure lust and moments of pure slime and there is a bit of violence. Its message is about telling the truth before it’s too late. Too late meaning, the first time because you can’t go back and change the past… once the lie is out—all one can do is make amends, leave it in the past, and try not to continue screwing up in the future. It is an adult show with plenty of choice language—most of it for laughs. That brings me to comedy. It’s a funny show.
Technically, this show was simple. As I said before, there were no set pieces and the background was a screen with projected images.  Effects were courtesy of simple sound and lighting tricks. Several scenes ended with freeze-frame images, moments paused in time so the Zydeco Cowboy could tell us—in Dukes of Hazzard commercial break style, if you remember that show—what he hoped might happen next.
Sound was excellent with crystal clear vocals and music and only a few glitches that didn’t detract from the performances.
Again, I won’t spoil the ending, but there’s more than one twist to the story and they were satisfying. Nothing turns out like you’ll probably hope as at its heart, this story is a tragic one, and much like The Walking Dead—you’ll question which set of brothers are really the ghosts...
Unless you just hate theater or just hate music, I have to highly recommend getting a seat for this show if it comes anywhere near your town. Stepping out of their comfort zones served the novelist and musician well.
As a side note, Stephen King and his wife Tabitha, and John Mellencamp and his girlfriend Meg Ryan were in the audience, but I didn’t tackle them. Not even sure I saw them. Not a huge fan of Mellencamp, but having grown up in Indiana, he was difficult to escape (and who doesn’t love a little Jack and Diane?). It was a big theater and it was a sold out show. I wish them well with the performance and hope it has a long run. Part of me was disappointed they didn’t take the stage with the performers at the end—or maybe introduce the show, but on the other hand, it was classy move not to upstage the players, many of which (especially the rude and talkative women seated behind me) seemed to be there only in hopes of glimpsing the world famous writer. I won't lie and say I didn't have thoughts of meeting King at the show, letting him know I was a writer and it was at least one-third his fault (the other two thirds blame belongs to my mother and grandmother who bought me all of King's books in hardback when I was probably too young to read them)...but I'm also not an idiot. Maybe one day I'll be that writer that folks look up to.

For more information, tickets or to pick up the soundtrack, check the official website here:

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