Review: Mellencamp/King’s 'Ghost Brothers of Darkland County'

October 11, 2013
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“Can’t you see how stupid this is? It’s not about anything,” shouts a character in the second act of the John Mellencamp/Stephen King musical “Ghost Brothers of Darkland Country” (whose tour launched from Indiana University Oct. 10.)

And by that point, I couldn’t help but agree with her. Not about the family argument the character was referring to but to the whole enterprise, a clunky stop-and-start musical where some solid music does nothing to enhance a contrived script.


At its core, it’s the story of Joe, the father of two squabbling sons (one a writer, the other a musician). Joe sees the writing on the wall for these two since his own two elder brothers died in a feud over a young woman (also dead) and Joe was a witness to what happened. This six-of-so-minutes of story is elongated by twenty songs, two framing devices, a pair of narrators and seemingly endless exposition. When all is eventually revealed, it’s done with all the subtlety of a Berenstain Bears book—although the reconciliation moment turns out to be, well, I’ll leave it there.

“Ghost Brothers,” which premiered in Atlanta in 2012, has been reconfigured into a hybrid of concert, old-time-radio show, and conventional musical drama—elements that never converge effectively. It’s well cast and the on-stage band is strong, but director Susan V. Booth hasn’t figured out a way to get Mellencamp’s mostly stand-along songs to merge seamlessly with King’s overly verbose book. Trimming isn’t just needed. Jack Torrance from “The Shining” should be called in to hack it with a hatchet.

The show, on a Midwest tour including Clowes Hall on Oct. 18 and a return to IU on Oct. 23, could use, among other things, a character or two to care about. It took me a good twenty minutes to sort out the relationships and two hours and 45 minutes (the show’s running time with intermission), to accept that I was never going to care about their fates. The minimal design esthetic does the show no favors, often leaving the onstage-the-whole-time cast with little to do but stand (or sit) and stare. The single backdrop and erratic lighting sometimes proved effective and other times had a whiff of Scooby-Doo about it.

The creators claim they’ve been working on the show for 13 years. I don’t believe in unlucky numbers, but there you go.

That being said, I’m looking forward to listening to the CD. Away from King’s book, I have a premonition that “Tear This Cabin Down,” “How Many Days” and “That’s Who I Am” could have an afterlife.

  • a disappointment
    I got the CD/DVD set for "Ghost Brothers" in June, and haven't been able to bring myself to even listen to the whole thing; it just doesn't work, even as an audio-only experience with a cast that includes Sheryl Crow, Matthew McConaughey and Kris Kristofferson. I find myself getting bored as one more over-jangly, tied-to-the-plot-by-a-thread song is thrust upon me. There are a couple of songs that I love (especially "My Name is Joe," sung by the little boy, and the beautiful duet sung by two young women), but most seem repetitive at best and incomprehensible at worst. Who goes out jukin'? Really? I am a stalwart fan of both Stephen King and and John Mellencamp, but, completist that I am, I was really disappointed in the end product. It seems like a lot of potential has been wasted.
  • Will save my $$
    I had been looking forward to this for about a year. These reviews are so disappointing. However, with what Stephen King did to the mini-series screen-play for "Under the Dome" which was one of his best books, I'm not that surprised. The TV presentation was so far off the book I couldn't believe it.
    • Loved It
      I saw the show in Louisville last night and loved it. So did my friends and everyone that sat around us. I don't go to theater much and didn't know what to expect. I enjoyed the music. Tha actors did a great job and they had beuatiful voices. The story was a little tough to follow at parts, but that didn't bother me too much. It's sometimes hard to follow musicals. It was interesting and different. I wasn't bored and didn't feel likd nearly 3 hours had passed when it was over.
    • Mostly Loved It
      I bought the CD months ago and the story becomes very clear after a couple of listening sessions. Four of us saw it live at the Kentucky Center last night and we all enjoyed it. It might benefit from a bit more of a conventional set. We saw some excellent actors/singers/musicians last night!
    • Loved it! Worth every cent!
      We saw the show in Knoxville, TN this weekend and LOVED IT! Wow! What great talent. I felt like I was reading a great novel and couldn't wait to get to the next musical chapter. A MUST SEE!!!!
    • Keep an open mind!
      I saw this in its original version in Atlanta - twice! It was outstanding. The talent was unbelievable! A lot of the same actors are touring with the drilled down road show. I will be seeing it in Akron this weekend. I am disappointed that they are not able to bring the original set with them as they added so much to the whole feel of the play. It is unfortunate that the play did not move into the theater circuit. Not sure exactly why that was. I know even in Atlanta it had mixed reviews. I am a fan of both King & Mellencamp & had been waiting for this to come to fruition ever since I first read about in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I took my 15 year old daughter & another die hard King fan & 2 other older friends who were not fans of either. Each & every one of us enjoyed it. I had the privilege of meeting T-Bone, Andy York & many of the actors & actresses from the play. You would never meet a nicer bunch of highly talented people. Go show your support and maybe the roadshow version will stimulate enough interest to get it back to a full theatrical production - to be fully enjoyed in its original form.
    • nope
      a. Under the Dome was NOT one of King's best books, as a matter of fact I can think of over a dozen that were better. Really a pet globe for alien children? The ending didn't work, like at all. b. Don't let others reviews of GBofDC discourage you, all of Stephen's "constant readers" know that he likes to mix it up a bit. I was thrown off by the whole musical thing myself, but I still bought it from iTunes and read/listened to it and formed my own judgement of which I will spare you. I can say it was waaaay better than "From a Buick 8".. :)
    • Frankenstein
      And by that, I mean a body of work that feels stitched together to try and create one cohesive entity. I saw Ghost Brothers last night and, while I admired the voices and musical talent (and I DON'T have a problem following musicals), I agree with Lou that you have a very shallow set of parallel stories drawn out to fill a night's entertainment. Creating a successful suspense or sense or horror takes a more intimate or crafted approach that builds up, IMO. And partnering that kind of plot with an onstage ensemble and (in this viewing) one backdrop with clever lighting, wasn't enough to suck you in. Maybe the performances would have been more impactful in a movie approach, but in the end there was only one real surprise (no spoilers her) and that WASN'T the finally revealed secret Joe has been keeping all that time. In fact, the "surprise" brought hoots of wry laughter and was the biggest audience reaction all night. I'm not saying I hated the show because I didn't, but I left wondering what I was supposed to take away with me.

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