There was heavy expectation in the air when the predominantly middle-aged crowd showed up for “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” a collaboration between three popular culture titans, which was presented Friday at Clowes Memorial Hall on the campus of Butler University in Indianapolis.
Novelist Stephen King wrote the libretto, rock musician John Mellencamp wrote the music and lyrics, and T-Bone Burnett was music director for this musical which played in Indy for one night only as part of a tour of 19 Midwest and Southeast cities that began Oct. 10 in Bloomington. The show premiered on April 11, 2012 at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Ga. The album of the musical with an all-star cast was released in June via Hear Music and the Concord Music Group.
The music for “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” which is vintage Mellencamp with its mixture of rock, country, blues and gospel, made for an arresting score. Blessed with knockout voices, the 15 remarkable performers who sang it and the four members of Mellencamp’s band who accompanied them, along with Burnett’s obvious major contribution—all made for a vivid evening of entertainment.
The staging for the production, which was 13 years in the making, was also a mixture of styles—both old fashioned and contemporary. The show was staged like an old time radio show with a microphone serving as the focal point. The set featured a backdrop which beheld a montage of images associated with the story. The band was situated stage right. Center stage were the performers who sat on folding chairs awaiting their turn to sing and tell the story in character. Next to them were three additional performers who played minor characters as well as sound-effect artists. Downstage on opposing sides were the narrator named the Zydeco Cowboy and a devil-like character referred to as The Shape.
As far as vintage is concerned, the musical’s Southern Gothic story, which is filled with horror, suspense, paranormal activity, and startling surprises, is quintessential Stephen King. It is based on events that occurred at a cabin on Lake Monroe, owned by Mellencamp, which he said was haunted.
Joe McCandless, a father with two sons, Frank and Drake, asks them to meet him at the family cabin, haunted by ghosts, which is situated in a little town called Lake Belle Reve, in Darkland County, Miss. Joe’s two sons are always at each other’s throats. Drake, the older brother, who is blue collar and plays in a rock band, is jealous of his younger brother, Frank, who has sold the paperback rights to a novel he has written and is about to earn a half a million dollars. Complicating things is the fact that Frank’s girlfriend is Anna, who used to be Drake’s. Hoping to end his boys’ destructive feud, Joe asks them and their mother Monique, who is also desperately searching for a solution, to meet him at the cabin, where, as it turns out, his own brothers died in 1967. It seems they were also at deep odds with each other and so Joe hopes that by telling his sons his sib’s story, he can restore peace to his troubled family and prevent some painful family history from repeating itself.
There were many standout performances coming from the first-rate cast, all of whom possess stellar theatrical credits. Chief among them were Jake La Botz as The Shape, the satanic figure who comments on and foretells the action. La Botz was stupendous in his interpretation of the Prince of Darkness, who slithered about the stage enticing and seducing his prey. Not only a fine actor, La Botz was also impressive as a singer, as evidenced by his vocal gymnastics in “That’s Me” and “Lounging Around in Heaven.”
Phenomenal bass Eric Moore was tremendous as Dan Coker, the wise sage of a bartender in the Dreamland Café, who encourages Joe, one of his patrons, to get his family on the right path. Coker and the entire cast were particularly strong in blues-tinged “Tear This Cabin Down,” the most memorable of all Mellencamp’s tunes in the show. It’s a song, with a title that is self-explanatory, that speaks to the tragedies that once occurred at Joe’s family cabin.
Broadway star Emily Skinner, wowed audiences in her Cabaret at the Columbia Club debut in May with her commanding vocals and striking presence. She was ideally cast as Monique, the strong-willed, yet long-suffering mother smack in the middle of two warring sons and made a deep impression when she sang "What's Going On Here."
Kate Ferber who played Jenna, the wedge between Joe's brothers, shone in “Home Again” and the plaintive “Away From This World.”
Kylie Brown also made a deep impression as manipulative Anna, Frank’s girlfriend who acts as a wedge between the brothers, and is ultimately the cause of the entire family’s undoing. Brown too showed formidable vocal talent during her solo of “A Rose for Poor Anna.”
Fans of Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner and other southern writers would recognize what is essentially a dark morality play (with music) about the costs exacted on a dysfunctional family resulting from sibling rivalry, jealousy, lust and revenge. King fans would enjoy what may be one of his most unique forays into the supernatural and fans of Mellencamp’s populist music will celebrate what is his most ambitious and, to date, his grandest achievement.
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