Nashville Scene: Fright Night: Ghost Brothers of Darkland County Excels On Stage
By Stephen Trageser - Nashville Scene
Photos By Harry Sandler
It wasn’t exactly a dark and stormy night, but a chilly, rainy afternoon put
me in just the right mood for Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, the musical
thriller dreamed up by Stephen King and John Mellencamp and brought to life by
music producer T Bone Burnett and director Susan Booth. From listening to the
all-star album Burnett recorded of the piece, and my email correspondence with
Ms. Booth for a preview in last week’s Scene, I concluded that one CD just
wasn’t long enough. Though the album gets an A+ for the recording and the
performances, it barely scrapes a D in telling the story; it took me three
careful listens to get even a shaky grasp of the ending.
At close to two and a half hours, the stage production of Ghost Brothers is a
vast improvement, giving cast and crew room to stretch out and set us straight.
Without giving anything away, crucial plot points that were outlined in a rush
on the album are revealed plainly on the stage, and in a much more
comprehensible order. It’s not all wine and roses — despite skilled portrayals,
some bits of dialog still feel contrived, from the younger characters in
general, the women in particular, and the Mephistophelean character The Shape
perhaps most unfortunately. Jake LaBotz’s portrayal is exquisitely nasty, even
trumping Elvis Costello in the role, but we had the picture long before he had
to grab his crotch or yell “booga-fuckin’-booga!”
Improved storytelling isn’t the only reason to catch the show live or hope for a
cast recording soon: They may not have the name recognition of Kris
Kristofferson, Neko Case, and the other vocalists who contributed to the album,
but the touring cast have incredible voices, perfectly suited to the songs.
Bruce Greenwood knows no one can match Kristofferson for world-weariness, so he
plays up other facets of the character Joe McCandless’ personality that fit his
voice. Joe’s wife, Monique, is one of the smaller roles in the play, but
Tony-winning actress Emily Skinner’s powerful pipes answered any speculation
about whether she should get two songs. In the first act closer “Tear This Cabin
Down,” Eric Moore as cabin caretaker Dan Coker harnessed tongues of gospel fire
and blew the roof off of The Mother Church. The band, who regularly tour with
Mellencamp, were outstanding, and worth the price of admission on their own.
Ghost Brothers is not perfect, but after 13 years in the making, it’s as good as
it can probably get. The clear presentation, which stops short of giving away
too much, surges with electricity thanks to the stellar cast and live music. The
secondary characters could be fleshed out a little more, and the dialog
massaged, but there’s only so much time you can spend with them in a live
production. King is one of my heroes, but not every word from his pen is gold.
Besides, he still has a beef with Stanley Kubrick over The Shining
(well-justified, I might add, though I disagree), arguably one of the best
dramatizations of his works to date. This collaboration produced an excellent
and engrossing trip, and I’m already getting goosebumps (the good kind)
wondering what might come next.