Canton Native Talks About Directing ‘Ghost Brothers’ Q&A With Susan Booth

By Dan Kane -

“The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” has surprisingly flown under the radar — especially considering its creators: Stephen King, John Mellencamp and T-Bone Burnett.

The musical, described as “a Southern gothic supernatural musical thriller of fraternal love, lust, jealousy and revenge,” has spawned an album of Mellencamp’s rootsy, bluesy songs performed by Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson, Roseanne Cash and Taj Mahal.

A just-launched, 20-city tour of the show will arrive at the Akron Civic Theatre on Oct. 19. “Ghost Brothers” is performed by an ensemble cast of 15 actors and a four-piece band.

According to director Susan Booth — a GlenOak High School graduate — the production is “a kind of new-age traveling medicine show” and a “story-driven rock concert.”

Set in rural Mississippi, the storyline focuses on two sets of brothers, Jack and Andy, the titular ghosts who died in an apparent murder-suicide, and their nephews, Frank and Drake, who appear to be headed down a similar dark path.

“This work is so much about family and the good and bad we pass down to our children,” Booth said. “And it’s utterly bound up with questions of fate and karma — things with which I think Steve always likes to wrestle.”

Here, Booth talks about this intriguing production that she is helming. Deep in rehearsals, she asked to have questions submitted to her via email.

Q. How long has “Ghost Brothers” been in the works?
A. “John and Steve first started talking about this piece fourteen years ago. Because they both have pretty demanding day jobs, the developmental process had to happen on those rare instances when they both had time. We started working together in earnest on it in 2010.”

Q. Can you describe the atmosphere and vibe of the show?
A. “The music is swampy — and I mean that in the best way. John (Mellencamp) and T-Bone Burnett are fantastically well paired; they create a kind of primal drive in the music that’s really visceral. Steve’s story is classic King.

It all seems familiar and safe until you lean in too close, and then something turns dark. Typically, it’s a very human (but very menacing) impulse that’s gotten wholly out of hand.”

Q. Is it unrelentingly somber?
A. “Not at all. Steve’s got a killer sense of humor (pun intended) and loves to take you off your guard by misdirection. You’ll think it’s a romance sometimes, a comedy sometimes, and then he and John will sucker-punch you with something else entirely.”

Q. Is the musical score recognizably Mellencamp-esque?
A. “The songs were written for, and are played by, John’s band — guitar, upright bass, keyboard and drums — and these guys are jaw-dropping musicians. The sound is rootsy and driving, but the surprise, at least for me, are some impossibly beautiful ballads that are just heartbreaking.”

Q. Are the cast members theater folks or more from the music world?
A. “They’re from all over, both geographically and aesthetically. We have Emily Skinner, who’s Broadway royalty, but we also have Jake la Botz, who is a blues musician. Most of our folks are singers who act, rather than vice versa. The amazing surprise is Bruce Greenwood, this very familiar movie actor who turns out to be an amazing and soulful singer.”

Q. Please tell me a bit about your background? Is this show very different than anything you have tackled before?
A. “The most important part of my background is that I grew up in Canton, Ohio! I was a theater geek from the beginning, and ended up first in Chicago, where I started my directing career, and 12 years ago, moved to Atlanta to become artistic director of The Alliance Theatre. I tend to direct more new plays than musicals, but the chance to work with these guys was way too appealing, so I went after the directing role. They were nice enough to say yes.”

Q. Where did you go to school in Canton, and did you do theater here?
A. “I grew up in Hills and Dales, went to GlenOak High School, where I was a regular performer in the drama club productions. And I did a few shows with the Canton Players Guild as well.”

Q. Have Stephen King and John Mellencamp been very involved in the rehearsal process for the tour?
A. “Very much so. We actually rehearsed at John’s studio in Indiana.”

Q. What’s it been like being part of the creation of a big show like this?
A. “A total wild ride. These are wholly brilliant artists, and they’ve been impossibly generous in their collaboration with me and with the piece.”