Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, State Theater

Ghost Brothers“Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” billed a “supernatural blues and roots musical,” is the creation of author Stephen King, and musicians John Mellencamp and T Bone Burnett. Clearly the writers have the credentials to write a) about the supernatural, and b) blues and roots music. It’s an intriguing idea; the songwriter/arrangers unquestionably have musical chops; the hybrid concert and staged approach just pumps up the curiosity about this piece. It is, no question, “a tale of fraternal love, lust, jealousy and revenge,” and who wouldn’t want to see how Mellencamp, at least, pulls that off?

So, I was curious.

Not surprisingly, I found myself at the State Theater surrounded by Mellencamp fans. They were generally appreciative of the songs, but there were people leaving during the show. It could have been the lousy sound, which made the dialog difficult to understand, or the language and violent content. But judging by the intermission conversations around me, I wasn’t the only one befuddled by King’s libretto.

It’s a dark story leading to a heavy lesson, which we all saw coming in some iteration. Well, it’s Stephen King. One of the main characters (The Shape) is Satan, essentially, the title is “Ghost Brothers,” and people are going to die. It’s also Stephen King, the novelist, whose libretto played like a novel being recited on stage, interrupted by songs that reiterated what the dialog just said. The final number says something else completely. By the time we get there (and it took a while), the ending is moot.

If I had been at a concert by Mellencamp, I’d clap, I’d sing along, I’d cheer. He’s a superstar and he has cache of solid tunes. But songs in musicals have to do more than that, and they have to fit seamlessly into the libretto as one story, carrying it along and lifting that arc for the character(s) singing and the story overall. They are the story, sung. Mellencamp was on his way; King didn’t get it.

Also, it’s also hard to get away with less than perfect prosody (how the lyrics flow with the music) and imperfect rhymes. Nobody cares about such things in popular music, but in musical theater these little glitches stick out like a bad entrance.

It had its redeeming qualities, however. The most interesting element was “The Shape,” played by Jake La Botz. A tattooed, guitar slinging, redneck with greased-back hair, his presence guided the events of the play and anchored its creep factor. La Botz was terrific in this role. There were many other fine individual performances by excellent singers, and the band—Mellencamp’s own—was superb, knocking down really interesting treatments for mostly straightforward and heartfelt songs.

This was a provocative concept; it needed the hand of someone who knew how to translate it into a functioning musical–regardless of the method in which it would be staged. I didn’t mind that the actors sat in chairs in a semi-circle behind the action; I rather liked the backup singers sitting at a table extreme stage left, handling the acoustic sound effects. The old fashioned mic, which was planted down center throughout, however, tripped me up. It worked well for the narrator (played beautifully by Jesse Lenat) but served no purpose otherwise. It was there, so they had to use it, and that’s what it looked like. Was this a director (Susan V. Booth) call, or did the superstars get to tell the director what to do? I wonder. Booth certainly has credibility, and one would think could’ve tightened things up–if that was her prerogative.

This show was in development for 13 years. Surely there must have been somebody along the way who knew how to translate it into a functioning musical. There have been a lot of musicals written by famous people who are not librettists, lyricists or composers for the theater. It has served to broaden our scope of what musical theater can be, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But in many cases, the shows have a limited impact, or simply fail, and it’s usually because of the libretto.

I doubt we’re going to quit suckering for famous people doing something other than what they’re famous for. Fame sells. In this case, I’m just not buying it. Except, maybe, the show recording.

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