Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a chilling new musical with music and lyrics by John Mellencamp, book by Stephen King and musical direction by T-Bone Burnett has opened in Atlanta, GA!
The production began previews on April 4th with the opening on April 11th and runs through May 13th, 2012. Tickets are ON SALE NOW for the project, more than a decade in the making, through the Alliance Theater's website or by phone at 404.733.5000. We are offering a $10 discount off regularly priced tickets if you use the code MELLENCAMP10 during your ticket purchase.
The production began previews on April 4th and then opens on April 11th and runs through May 13th, 2012.
One of the world's most popular authors and one of America’s most honored musicians have created a riveting Southern gothic musical fraught with mystery, tragedy, and ghosts of the past, along with a roots and blues-tinged score that is sure to leave audiences asking for more. Alliance Artistic Director Susan V. Booth directs, with musical direction provided by legendary producer T Bone Burnett.
Here is an overview of the story: In the tiny town of Lake Belle Reve, Mississippi in 1957, a terrible tragedy took the lives of two brothers and a beautiful young girl. During the next forty years, the events of that night became the stuff of local legend. But legend is often just another word for lie. Joe McCandless knows what really happened; he saw it all. The question is whether or not he can bring himself to tell the truth in time to save his own troubled sons, and whether the ghosts left behind by an act of violence will help him – or tear the McCandless family apart forever.
Stephen King recently spoke about the project at the Alliance Theatre. You can watch part of the interview on YouTube. Stay tuned to Mellencamp.com for more details on the project as we get closer to the premiere!
Ghost Brothers Ticket Discount & VIP Ticket Promotion
We are offering a $10 discount off regularly priced tickets if you use the code MELLENCAMP10 during your ticket purchase.
Head over to http://www.alliancetheatre.org/ghostbrothers to order tickets or call 404.733.5000 or stop by the box office at the Alliance. Be sure to mention the promo code!
MELLENCAMP.COM TICKET DISCOUNT: We are offering a $10 discount off regularly priced tickets if you use the code MELLENCAMP10 during your ticket purchase. Head over to http://www.alliancetheatre.org/ghostbrothers to order tickets or call 404.733.5000 or stop by the box office at the Alliance. Be sure to mention the promo code!
Theatre Preview: ‘Ghost Brothers of Darkland County’ at The Alliance
In Town Atlanta By Manning Harris
A couple of weeks ago the Alliance Theatre held a press conference at the Third Floor Rehearsal Hall of the Woodruff Arts Center. It was quite an auspicious occasion.
In attendance were the creative team and cast of the upcoming world premiere musical “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” to be presented April 4 through May 13, 2012 at the Alliance. The show is described as “a riveting Southern gothic tale fraught with mystery, tragedy, and ghosts of the past.” In the small town of Lake Belle Reve, Mississippi, in 1957 a terrible tragedy took the lives of two brothers and a beautiful young girl. Forty years later the truth of what really happened may finally be revealed, but not without dire repercussions.
Let’s get back to the press conference—talk about star power: Stephen King (book), John Mellencamp (music and lyrics), and T Bone Burnett (musical direction) were seated, live and in person, at a table with Director Susan V. Booth (Artistic Director of the Alliance). To their left the entire cast sat in two rows of chairs—more about them in a moment.
It appears that Mr. Mellencamp had an idea twelve years ago (things often move slowly in the theatre world) which he pitched to his friend Mr. King, who wrote a 60-page treatment. All these people have busy careers, of course; but happily, the show is at last underway, casting is complete, and show dates have been set. The cast gathered in Atlanta on December 5 to participate in a 10-day developmental workshop, culminating in a press conference which yours truly attended.
Atlanta was evidently the first choice for the premiere by all parties concerned: Mr. King said that “Atlanta is the best of all possible worlds” to do this show; and “This is not a minor league city or theatre.” He went on to say that Atlanta is “cosmopolitan, but still in touch with its country roots.” Mr. Burnett said the creators wanted a “dark, foggy” atmosphere and reiterated that Atlanta was the ideal place to put the show together.
All three men were emphatic in stating that Director Susan Booth was a huge factor in their decision to come here. Ms. Booth, grinning like the Cheshire cat (and why shouldn’t she be?), introduced her illustrious team (“This is Stephen King; he writes books) with lighthearted confidence and delight. There was a definite love fest going on among all the big-name creators; Mr. Mellencamp joked that he and Mr. King had become good pals very easily, since neither had any real friends.
But again, Mr. Burnett, Mr. Mellencamp, and Mr. King repeatedly voiced their admiration for Ms. Booth. If there was any doubt before, it can be stated emphatically that Susan Booth is the most powerful person in Atlanta theatre. But she gives credit where credit is due; for example, she praised casting director Jody Feldman for her expertise.
Speaking of the cast, Atlanta’s own Tony-winning Shuler Hensley, Broadway’s Emily Skinner, and Justin Guarini (of American Idol and Broadway fame) are the leading players. Dale Watson, American alternative country singer, guitarist, and songwriter is also in the group. I noticed the young leading lady of Actor’s Express’ triumphant “Spring Awakening,” Kylie Brown, is also in the show.
There’s always talk of “Will it go to Broadway?” in big shows like this (a la “Aida” and “The Color Purple”), but the big-name creative team were firm in saying that their goal is to knock Atlanta audiences for a loop; the rest is gravy.
LuxeCrush Atlanta By Nancy Staab
Ghost Brothers of Darkland County should provide plenty of chills and musical thrills when it makes its national debut at The Alliance Theatre under creative director Susan Booth.
It’s not often that Atlanta is the site of a major musical premiere. But increasingly that is the case with smart, visionary Susan Booth at the wheel as Alliance Theatre’s Creative Director. She orchestrated the Atlanta debut of Twyla Tharp’s Franks Sinatra tribute Come Fly With Me in 2009, which then went on to Broadway acclaim. Now, she’s banking her reputation on yet another buzzy premiere, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County by John Mellencamp, Stephen King and T Bone Burnett which bows this spring. It seems like a pretty safe bet with this seasoned trio at the helm. Mellencamp may sing of “little pink houses” in Bloomington, Indiana; Stephen King (Carrie, The Shining, The Dark Towers) may crank out his spine-tingling thrillers in remote Maine, and former Bob Dylan bandmate and major music producer T Bone Burnett may hail from Texas, but all three ply the rootsy Americana note in their works. We can expect the same vibe in this, the trio’s first musical collaboration with a decidedly Southern Gothic flair.
The germ of the idea for a Southern Gothic ghost story of feuding brothers was Mellencamp’s, whose rock/folk songs are already highly visual and cinematic, conjuring up dusty roads, fishing holes, Tasty-Freezes and good old Americana of the Jack and Diane variety. When Mellencamp pitched the concept to friend King, the author instantly warmed to the idea of framing a narrative around Mellencamp’s collection of songs. Mellencamp’s music producer Burnett soon joined the team and what looked like a pipe dream became a real musical over 12 years of on-and-off crafting, and the work will be staged for the first time this April in Atlanta. (The play also stars one other boldfacer: American Idol’s Justin Guarini as brother Drake.)
Many a theater courted the trio but it was Booth’s creativity and vision, the state-of-the-art nature of Alliance Theatre, and the ability of Atlanta to tap into the Southern Gothic, country roots of the story line, while still providing a cosmopolitan theater audience that cinched the deal. At a recent press conference at Alliance Theater the trio shed a little bit of light, but not too much on this anticipated musical.
The story is described as follows:
“A riveting Southern Gothic musical fraught with mystery, tragedy and phantoms of the past, along with a roots and blues-tinged score that is sure to leave audiences asking for more. In the tiny town of Lake Belle Reve, Mississippi in 1957, a terrible tragedy took the lives of two brothers and a beautiful young girl. During the next forty years, the events of the night became the stuff of local legends. But legend is often just another word for lie. Joe McCandless knows what really happened; he saw it all. The question is whether or not he can bring himself to tell the truth in time to save his own troubled sons, and whether the ghosts left behind by an act of violence will help him—or tear the McCandless family apart forever.”
A remote cabin, a blood feud between brothers, a family secret and hauntings from the past: sounds like Southern-Fried Gothic to be sure. Mellencamp once characterized the project as “Tennessee Williams crossed with Stephen King.” Ryan Agostino, an Esquire reporter privy to an early rehearsal in 2007 reported, “Musicals aren’t usually a guy thing. This one, though, is not only tolerable, it’s good. It may be the first-ever musical written by men for men.” In addition, we love that this musical has gravitas and some bite: not just froth and fluff. And, who knows, maybe ghosts will become the new vampires in our Goth-addled pop culture?
At one point Mellencamp considered having the different generations of characters sing in their native musical genres from rap to blues, but no word on whether this conceit was maintained in the final show. We do know the show is not backed by a major orchestra but more fittingly and sparingly backed up by “ two twangy acoustic guitars, an accordion and a fiddle,” according to Agostno, “with rock stars pillaged from Mellencamp’s and Johnny Cash’s bands,” says Booth. Not bad, not bad at all!
Demonstrating an ease that comes from twelve years-plus of friendship and creative collaboration, Mellencamp, Burnett and King joshed with each other like brothers during the press conference, with Mellencamp’s new love Meg Ryan lurking in back with the press members. (The duo were spotted around town at The Four Seasons, Tap, and The Palm and Meg, as well as stars like Mathew McConaughey, Rosanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Sheryl Crow lend their voices to the soundtrack for the musical. The soundtrack is meant to sound like “an old-timey radio show,” says Mellencamp).
Casually attired in t-shirts, but for T Bone sporting shirt and coat and too-cool-for-school indoor shades, the trio seemed eager to give birth to their ghost story.
Asked what producer T Bone (Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Crazy Heart) contributes to the mix, Mellencamp replied, “T Bone thinks different from me and has a different metronome in his head…all my [musical] references are from the ‘50s to the present, his are from the ‘20s to the ‘50s. T-Bone is firmly planted in American blues and folk. “
Later Stephen King added that T Bone’s knowledge of music arcana made him the ideal fit, as perhaps the only other person beside himself who could reference Henson Cargill’s obscure country chestnut, circa 1967, “Skip a Rope.” Meanwhile, King professed that he took Mellencamp’s project on because it took him well outside of his comfort zone. Supposedly he crafted the first draft in three weeks, but then it was another decade to whittle the 500-page script down to the required length and fuse it with the songs Mellencamp wrote. “Every time Susan Booth emailed, I thought ‘there goes another two pages,’ “ joked King.
Despite the good-natured ribbing, all three were very vocal in their appreciation of Booth, with Mellencamp flatly stating that she was the one reason the premiere was being staged in Atlanta. Apparently it’s kismet all around since Booth, shortly after taking up the mantle at Alliance Theater ten years ago, was asked in an interview what her ideal project would be. Her answer: to stage a musical by John Mellencamp. It practically sends ghostly chills up our spine.
Tickets for the premiere staging of Ghost Brothers of Darkland County are on sale now and we predict they will sell out, so book early. The show runs April 4-May 13, 2012. Opening night is April 11, 2012. Because of the dark content, this program is recommended for 9th-graders and up. Visit http://alliancetheatre.org/en/Our-Plays/Later-This-Season/Ghost-Brothers-of-Darkland-County.aspx for tickets and information or call 404.733.5000
See below for news press coverage from Atlanta on December 15, 2011
Stephen King, John Mellancamp Work on Musical in Atlanta
By Julia Reynolds/myfoxatlanta
ATLANTA - They're a trifecta of sorts who say they're trying to make their mark on Atlanta. Stephen King, John Mellencamp and T-Bone Burnett are in Atlanta to work on a musical set to debut at the Alliance Theatre next year.
“Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” will premiere in April. The creators say it’s a they say it's a ghost story of sorts involving tragedy and mystery.
Stephen King wrote the musical 12 years ago and finally decided to bring it to Atlanta.
“ We wanted a place that was cosmopolitan but not out of touch with country roots,” said King.
“This is a country story, a southern gothic kind of story. I felt like we've got an audience here.”
John Mellencamp, who composed the music, says they actually tried to put on the production in New York, but that it wasn't a good fit.
“I don't need to hear my song sung that way,” Mellencamp said, referring to the way in which many Broadway songs are performed.
“The first thing I wanted it to sound like was foggy. Dark and foggy and...scary,” said Burnett.
More than a third of the cast members are from Atlanta. They will rehearse for the next four months before opening night on April 4
“I came down and looked at the facility and my eyes about fell out of my head,” said King.
The famous writer did have one complaint about the city.
“The only thing about Atlanta I don't like is all the traffic. If you're on foot, it's the one place I've been, including New York, where they speed up when you're crossing the street,” said King.
He said the city felt authentic.
“It doesn't feel showy and put on,” he said. “It feels like home.”
King and Mellencamp say they're not sure Broadway is on the horizon for the production; they just want it to be a big success here.
A Conversation with Travis Smith, Kylie Brown, and Justin Guarini Of Alliance Theater's Ghost Brother of Darkland County
Get an inside look at Alliance Theatre's Ghost Brothers of Darkland County in this video interview with Justin Guarini, Kylie Brown and Travis Smith. The new musical, with Book by Stephen King, Music and Lyrics by John Mellencamp and Musical Direction by T Bone Burnett, makes its world premiere on the Alliance Stage. Previews begin April 4, 2012 and opening night is set for April 11, 2012. Alliance Theatre Artistic Director Susan V. Booth directs the production.
King, Mellencamp stage musical in Midtown
NeighborNewspaper.com By Gloria Love
In crafting the new musical “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” author Stephen King and musician John Mellencamp set off down the twisted roads of the Southern Gothic and were led to Midtown’s own Alliance Theatre.
The tale of tragedy in a tiny Mississippi town is scheduled to premiere in April to close the theatre’s 2011-12 season.
During a developmental workshop at the Alliance Thursday, King said he began work on the project 12 years ago after Mellencamp contacted him with a ghost story from his home state of Indiana.
“What a long, strange trip it’s been,” King said. “One of the reasons I got into this and said yes is, first of all, I respect John as a musician and as someone not content to stay in one place.
“I’m in my 60s now. I’m not a kid … I wanted to try something a little bit risky and something outside my comfort zone.”
King penned the story of two brothers and a young girl who meet a mysterious end — and their interaction with the event’s one living witness.
Mellencamp stepped in with music and lyrics and brought in legendary producer T Bone Burnett as musical director. Burnett provided similar direction for the 2000 film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
King and Mellencamp sought a regional theatre to stage the show, and decided an Atlanta location offered unique advantages.
“We wanted a place that was cosmopolitan but not out of touch with country roots. Atlanta seemed like the middle of the bulls-eye,” King said. “You know that song, ‘If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere?’ That’s how I feel about Atlanta and this show.”
The pair also wanted the benefit of working with Susan Booth, the Alliance’s artistic director, who, “has forgotten more about the theatre than John and I know,” King said.
“The only other play I wrote was for the Boy Scouts,” he said. “I was 10.”
King and Mellencamp started to stage the show two previous times, once at the Alliance and once on Broadway, but called those productions off for various reasons, Mellencamp said.
Now, almost at the end of the process, they are solely focused on creating one great Atlanta production, he said.
“[Afterward], I personally don’t care if we go to Broadway or Washington, D.C. or to the moon or Indiana,” Mellencamp said.
“Ghost Brothers” is set to run April 4 to May 13.
Information: Call (404) 733-5000 or visit www.alliancetheatre.org/ghostbrothers
King, Mellencamp and T-Bone chat up Ghost Brothers
Creative Loafing Atlanta By Curt Holman
Group press conferences about artistic projects tend to be lovefests, so it’s no surprise that the Alliance Theatre’s Dec. 15 presser for Ghost Brothers of Darkland County served as a mutual admiration society. “How often do you get a chance to work with this kind of trifecta?” director Susan V. Booth asked of Ghost Brothers’ principle creators, book writer Stephen King, lyricist and composer John Mellencamp and music director T-Bone Burnett. "Ghost Brothers" could even describe their working relationship.
The press conference capped off the Alliance’s 10-day workshop with Ghost Brothers’ full cast in advance of its world premiere on April 4, 2012. The conversation emphasized good-natured joshing around over the nuts-and-bolts creative process of the musical.
When Mellencamp said, tongue partially in cheek, “Susan has a vision and ability to deal with all three of our egos and idea,” King added, “We’d get another email from Susan and I’d say ‘There goes another two pages of the script!’ Which was okay, since the script was 500 pages.”
While chatting and answering questions at the Alliance’s rehearsal space, King, Mellencamp and Burnett seem to be very much on each other’s wavelengths for Ghost Brothers. The musical originated about 12 years ago, while King was recovering from his near-fatal car accident 1999 car accident. He recalls meeting with Mellencamp: “John said, ‘I have this idea about a cabin and some brothers who died there. Maybe we could make a musical together.”
King told him that he’d think about it and would work on a treatment if he had time. Mellencamp recalls, “I didn’t even get where I was going to next, and you sent me the treatment. And it was a book — 60 pages!”
Mellencamp explained that he and Burnett complemented each other, because Burnett has an encyclopedic knowledge of song from the 1920s through the 1950s, and Mellencamp’s musical knowledge takes up afterward.
King gave an example of his own musical simpatico with Burnett over obscure country crooners. “The first time I met T-Bone, we were in Nashville talking about the beginning of play. At first, when the audience comes and sits down, there should be 1950s-style country radio playing. I said it should sound like Hank Williams, but that we probably can’t afford the [music] clearance. So I said maybe someone like Henson Cargill, and T-Bone immediately said ‘Skip a Rope,’ which was perfect.”
Ghost Brothers concerns three killings in Mississippi in the 1950s and its repercussions for people in the present day. Burnett explained his goals for the show’s overall rootsy sound. “First, Stephen King and John Mellencamp were writing it, and they live in the same part of America, small-town America. The next thing, it was ghosts, it was dead people, it was Mississippi. I wanted it to sound dark and foggy. I wanted it to sound scary.”
The show features performers from Atlanta and across the country, and Mellencamp appreciated casting the show outside of Broadway. “Why tried casting in New York, and it didn’t work. It was too ‘Broad! Way! Rhy-thm!’ We had to get out of there. I didn’t need to hear ‘MY SONGS SUNG THAT WA-AAY!’” he said, almost slipping into an Ethel Merman impression.
Perhaps the press conference’s most frequent refrain was the “trifecta’s” excitement about debuting the play in the South, and at the Alliance Theatre in particular. The Alliance was on King and Mellencamp’s short list for regional theaters to try out the show. King said, “We talked about a number of regional theaters, and would they want to take a chance on guys who are—”
“TOTAL unknowns,” Booth quipped.
“No, professionals in our fields, but new to theater. We came to the Alliance, and my eyes fell out of my head,” King added. “And it’s not just the theater here, it’s the whole arts complex. I like that it’s in Georgia. [Ghost Brothers] is a Southern story. It’s a country story.”
“And I have an album by the Atlanta Rhythm Section,” King quipped.
King denied that Ghost Brothers’ Alliance debut was a dry run for Broadway. “This is not like when pro baseball players are in the minor leagues and want to go the majors. This is not a minor league city. We’re not thinking about Broadway or movies, we’re thinking about how we can get audiences to come to the Alliance on opening night.”
The renowned novelist does have a bone to pick with the ATL, however. “The only thing I don’t like is the traffic. This is the one place I’ve been to, next to New York, where they speed up if they see you crossing the street. Or maybe it’s just me!”
Atlanta's Alliance Theatre announces casting for "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County"
By Sandra Okamoto Atlanta Ledger -Enquirer
The Alliance Theatre in Atlanta announced the casting of "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County." This new musical is written by Stephen King, with music and lyrics by John Mellencamp and musical direction by T Bone Burnett.
Tony Award-winning actor Shuler Hensley ("Oklahoma!," "Young Frankenstein" and "Tarzan") and Tony nominee Emily Skinner ("Billy Elliott: The Musical," "The Full Monty" and "Side Show") are the leads in the show. The cast includes blues musician and film actor Jake La Botz; Broadway star and recording artist Justin Guarini ("Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," "American Idiot" and first runner-up in the first season of "American Idol"); actor and writer Lucas Kavner; actor and songwriter Kate Ferber ("One Child Born: The Music of Laura Nyro"); stage and screen actor Christopher Morgan; and country music singer Dale Watson. Other cast members include Peter Albrink, Kylie Brown, Lori Beth Edgeman, Gwen Hughes, Joe Jung, Joe Knezevich, Rob Lawhon, Royce Mann, and Travis Smith.
It will be directed by Susan V. Booth, artistic director of the Alliance. Tony Award-winning scenic designer Todd Rosenthal ("August: Osage County") will design the set. Others on the creative team include choreographer Daniel Pelzig ("33 Variations"), costume designer Susan E. Mickey, Tony Award-nominated lighting designer Robert Wierzel ("Fela!"), media designer Adam Larsen and sound designer Clay Benning.
“It’s a pretty extraordinary thing when you get to offer an artistic home to Stephen King, John Mellencamp and T Bone Burnett," said Booth in a statement. "This piece is dear to these gents’ hearts and I’m thrilled we’re able to bring it to life at the Alliance Theatre.”
The cast will be in the Alliance Theatre on Dec. 5 to start a 10-day developmental workshop.
Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. April 4-5, April 10, April 12, April 17-19, April 24-26, May 1-3, May 8-10; 8 p.m. April 6-7, April 11, April 13, April 20, April 27, May 4, May 11; 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. April 8, April 15, April 22, April 29, May 6, May 13; 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. April 14, April 21, April 28, May 5 and May 12. "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County" is a Southern gothic story about mystery, tragedy and ghosts of the past. Tickets are $45-$85. Some performances are sold out.
Ghost Brothers of Darkland County Musical to Star Shuler Hensley, Emily Skinner and Justin Guarini
By Adam Hetrick Playbill.com
Tony Award winner Shuler Hensley, Tony nominee Emily Skinner and Justin Guarini will be part of the world-premiere production of Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, the new musical thriller by horror writer Stephen King and Grammy Award-winning musician John Mellencamp.
Ghost Brothers will debut at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre April 4, 2012, under the direction of artistic director Susan V. Booth. Performances are scheduled through May 13, 2012. The musical's blues-tinged score is by Mellencamp. "Carrie," "Misery" and "The Shining" novelist King authored the book. T Bone Burnett will musical direct.
Joining Hensley (Young Frankenstein, Oklahoma, Sweet and Sad), Skinner (Billy Elliot, Side Show, James Joyce's The Dead) and Guarini ("American Idol," Women on the Verge…) are blues musician and actor Jake La Botz, Lucas Kavner (Completeness, The Blue Flower), Kate Ferber (One Child Born: the Music of Laura Nyro), Christopher Morgan (Gut Bucket Blues) and country musician Dale Watson.
Completing the cast are Peter Albrink, Kylie Brown, Lori Beth Edgeman, Gwen Hughes, Joe Jung, Joe Knezevich, Rob Lawhon, Royce Mann and Travis Smith.
The cast will gather in Atlanta this December to participate in a ten-day workshop of the material.
Here's how the work is billed: "In the tiny town of Lake Belle Reve, Mississippi in 1957, a terrible tragedy took the lives of two brothers and a beautiful young girl. During the next forty years, the events of that night became the stuff of local legend. But legend is often just another word for lie. Joe McCandless knows what really happened; he saw it all. The question is whether or not he can bring himself to tell the truth in time to save his own troubled sons, and whether the ghosts left behind by an act of violence will help him – or tear the McCandless family apart forever."
Ghost Brothers will have scenic design by Todd Rosenthal, choreography by Daniel Pelzig, costume design by Susan E. Mickey, lighting design by Robert Wierzel, media design by Adam Larsen and sound design by Clay Benning.
The musical was previously announced as part of the Atlanta theatre company's 2008-2009 season, but was postponed. Musical director Burnett was also involved in a three-CD recording of Ghost Brothers. The yet-to-be-released album was reportedly produced like a radio play, with a full book of text, as well as two CDs that include all dialogue and songs and a third CD with only the music. A release date has not been announced.
Atlanta audiences won't be the only theatregoers to catch a musical with ties to King. MCC Theater is also presenting a revised version of the 1980's pop musical Carrie, based on King's novel, which will debut in winter 2012 Off-Broadway.
For tickets phone (404) 733-5000 or visit AllianceTheatre.
Shuler Hensley to lead King-Mellencamp ‘Ghost Brothers’ cast at Alliance
By Howard Pousner - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Broadway favorite and Marietta native Shuler Hensley and Emily Skinner (a Tony nominee for "Side Show") will lead the cast of the Stephen King-John Mellencamp musical "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," the Alliance Theatre announced Wednesday.
Also cast: blues musician/film actor Jake La Botz, former Atlantan and "American Idol" runnerup Justin Guarini, country music singer Dale Watson, actor-writer Lucas Kavner; actor-songwriter Kate Ferber ("One Child Born: the Music of Laura Nyro") and stage-screen actor Christopher Morgan.
Additional cast members include Peter Albrink, Kylie Brown, Lori Beth Edgeman, Gwen Hughes, Joe Jung, Joe Knezevich, Rob Lawhon, Royce Mann and Travis Smith.
Performances of the world premiere, directed by Alliance artistic director Susan V. Booth and with music direction by T Bone Burnett, begin April 4.
At an Alliance season announcement event in May, King described "Ghost Brothers'" plot as being about two teen brothers who drank too much at a dance, drove to the cabin with a girl and drank some more, then had a gun accident that led to a fatal wreck in a car speeding to the hospital. As in most King tales, the deaths are merely part of the creepy backdrop in a dissection of the flaws of human relations.
King recalled Mellencamp approaching him more than a decade ago to collaborate on the chilling story the singer had heard after visiting an Indiana lakeside cabin he was thinking about buying.
Asked if the story were true, King replied: "John Ford in ‘Liberty Valance' said, ‘If they give you truth and legend, print the legend.' We printed the legend. I don't know how much of it's true. You know what? There's a story like that about every house, every hotel."
In Wednesday's casting announcement, director Booth said, "It’s a pretty extraordinary thing when you get to offer an artistic home to Stephen King, John Mellencamp and T Bone Burnett. This piece is dear to these gents’ hearts and I’m thrilled we’re able to bring it to life at the Alliance Theatre."
As I wrote last week, it took twelve years for Ghost Brothers of Darkland County to get from inception to execution. I attended the red carpet premiere on April 11. Here are my thoughts.
Before the show started, ghostly figures flitted across the stage, projected onto the walls. It was an eerie effect because I didn't expect anything to be happening yet. I was talking to others in our group when I noticed motion out of the corner of my eye. Then we realized there were stationary figures at the edges of the stage. Was the old man sitting on a bus stop bench real or a mannequin? More of these figures materialized, part of the ensemble that would join the actors on stage from time to time.
Two thirds of the stage is taken up by the interior of a lakeside cabin. There's a living room—which has a couch, a grandfather clock, a huge fireplace and a gun rack—and a small bedroom with a Shania Twain poster on the wall and bunk beds.
Beyond the cabin's Spanish moss-covered roof is an old water tower. To the left is an open area used for exterior action and flashbacks. An old Pontiac convertible is pushed onto the stage here from time to time. In one wing is a lover's leap. An elevated roadhouse set is located left of the cabin's chimney. From this significant vantage point, a bartender and central character Joe McCandless contemplate the past. The four-piece band, composed of musicians who regularly play with Mellencamp, occupies a screened-in loft above the stage.
As the show starts, a figure emerges through a trap in the floor. Tattoos cover his arms and chest, and he looks like a satanic rockabilly singer. This is "The Shape," a kissing cousin of Randall Flagg perhaps, played with sassy glee by blues singer/songwriter Jake La Botz. He sashays and saunters around the stage like he owns it. His opening piece, "That's Me," sets the tone. In it, he claims responsibility for every evil thought and malicious deed.
The Shape reappears frequently during the play, goading characters into making bad choices. He quickly becomes an audience favorite. For two generations he has been wreaking havoc on the McCandless family in the Mississippi town of Lake Belle Reve. Joe was ten when his older brothers died in 1967. Andy got easy As in school, whereas Jack struggled to make Bs. Their fierce rivalry worsened when a girl entered the picture. They argued and fought whenever Jenna wasn't around, forgetting that young Joe was watching everything.
Jack unexpectedly wins the Hawkeye Shootin' Competition. They drink too much that night and the love triangle comes to a head. What happens next becomes as romanticized in Lake Belle Reve as the stories of Cain and Abel or Romeo and Juliet. Only Joe knows the truth. His sons, Frank and Drake, appear to be heading down the same destructive path as his brothers. He needs to set the record straight so they can learn from the past.
Frank just sold his first novel for half a million dollars. He's bound for New York with Anna—Drake's ex-girlfriend, who bears a strong resemblance to Jenna. (The past harmonizes, right?) Drake blew his big chance when he screwed up during one of his band's gigs with a talent scout in the audience. He'll probably be stuck working at the local garage for the rest of his life.
Drake broke Frank's arm during their most recent set-to, but Frank goaded him, so the two are equally culpable. Joe summons his sons and his wife, Monique, to the family cabin, the site of the long-ago tragedy. Anna comes with Frank, putting everyone on edge. Unlike Jenna, who was a pleasant, high-spirited girl who genuinely liked Jack and Andy, Anna isn't nice at all. She's probably with Frank only to torment Drake—she knows Frank is unlikely to take her to New York now that he's found success. She spends a lot of the play slumped on the couch, seemingly uncertain why she's there. Monique isn't given much to do, either. She doesn't know Joe's secret but she encourages him and tries to keep her sons from bickering, but—even though she gets a couple of show-stopping songs—she is somewhat superfluous to the action.
The ghosts of Andy; Jack; Jenna; and Dan Coker (Christopher L. Morgan), the black cabin caretaker who unfairly received some of the blame for what happened in 1967, are interested in Joe's story, too. They're trapped in the cabin until the truth can set them free. Ten-year-old Joe (Royce McCann) chimes in occasionally, urging his older self to come clean.
The cast includes a Tony Award winner (Shuler Hensley as Joe), a Tony nominee (Emily Skinner as Monique) and a runner-up from the first season of American Idol (Justin Guarini as Drake), along with professional musicians La Botz and Kate Ferber (Jenna).
The songs range from R&B to C&W to rock and roll, mixed with ballads and Patsy Cline-esque torch songs. The vocal performances are all strong, though Ferber stands out in "Home Again," "And Your Days Are Gone," and "Away from this World," and struts her stuff in a short dress and stockings in "Jukin'." When the ghosts sing as a chorus, their harmonies are magical, and the full power of the ensemble is amazing. A program insert containing the final song listing indicates that King, Mellencamp and director Susan V. Booth tweaked the show right up to the last moment. A reprise was added to the second act, and the final song was renamed "The Truth is Here" from "The End is Here."
The show's staging, lighting and visual effects are all remarkable. When a character looks at a photograph, it is projected for the audience to see. As time ricochets back and forth, the years scroll backward and forward on the cabin's roof. Other text cues occasionally appear on the walls. Panels in the floor allow characters and props to emerge on demand. The actors do double duty as props crew. Though those who use the lover's leap are obviously jumping safely onto an air bag, the fact that they perform this ten-foot leap at all is impressive—and they have to do it several times. During the energetic dance routine—reminiscent of "Thriller"—that ends Act 1 ("Tear This Cabin Down"), the lights make the entire stage look like it's on fire.
Like many Southern Gothic tales, Ghost Brothers hinges on a secret. When the truth is revealed, it may not seem like such a big deal, but it changes how the McCandless family is seen—and how it sees itself. The romantic legend loses its sheen. It is also a secret borne by a 10-year-old boy. As such, it shaped the fifty-year-old man he became. The first act dragged a little, with Joe dithering over how to tell his story—and how much of it to tell. The second act is much peppier; as the ghosts of the past and the present intermingle, tensions rise and the conflicts come to a head.
Signs outside the theatre warn of Stephen King levels of violence, profanity and adult situations. Certainly this isn't family entertainment. There are numerous sexual references and sensual behavior (though no nudity), and jarring special effects associated with gunshots. Some of the violence is stylized, including the use of a transparent curtain that portrays flowing blood.
Viewers familiar with King's other works will find themselves in familiar territory once the truth is revealed. King explored the need to make changes to get things right in the Dark Tower series and in an episode of Kingdom Hospital. The question is: who has to change and when do they have to do it? For a while, it looks like the show might end like a Shakespearean tragedy, but there is redemption.
There is no word yet whether Ghost Brothers of Darkland County will have a life beyond its run in Atlanta. King and Mellencamp fans who find themselves in Atlanta between now and May 13 shouldn't pass up the chance to see this show if they can.