Review: Ghost Brothers of Darkland County

Cover art from Ghost Brothers soundtrack album

Tonight I was fortunate enough to see the tour premiere of “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” the musical written by Stephen King and John Mellencamp (with musical direction by T-Bone Burnett). I’m not going to write up a detailed review, but I have some thoughts about it. Since it’s a mystery, I’m going to do my best not to include any spoilers.

I’m not particularly a fan of musicals (it’s just a taste I never really acquired), and I’m not that big on mysteries either. The performance was strong enough to overcome my general lack of interest in those genres, though. There were some really fantastic singers on that stage; I was especially taken with Bruce Greenwood (Joe) – who you may know from his acting career but probably didn’t know that he actually has a killer singing voice – as well as Kylie Brown (Anna) and Eric Moore (Dan Coker) but there were a lot of very strong voices. I was completely captivated by Jake LaBotz (The Shape), who played a slimy, funny, villainous, charming, evil, sexy Satan-esque character like it was what he was born to do. Great voice, great movement, incredible stage presence. The songs were terrific, Mellencamp in absolutely top-notch songwriting form, and the band (Mellencamp’s guys – Andy York, Dane Clark, Troye Kinett, Jon E. Gee) was spot-on perfect.

The staging was minimal, but worked really well for me. The idea was that it would be sort of like an old-time radio drama, and there’s even an old-fashioned microphone that serves as a center stage focal point. The set is extremely minimalistic and the costuming is not elaborate. That could, in some hands, make it feel low-budget and amateurish. But because the lighting was very nicely done and the performance was so very good, the staging served to leave room for the audience’s imagination. It was, in a way, kind of like reading a book – you get a certain amount of description but you have to fill in a lot of it for yourself. I liked that very much.

That said, I’m troubled by some things about the show. First, and just to get this out of the way, the women in the show basically existed to serve as pretty prizes for the men to fight over. It really became quite problematic for me. The actresses were great, and they did what they could with the roles, but make no mistake, they were basically high-class props on the stage. It didn’t prevent me from enjoying the show, but it did bug me.

The other troubling thing – and this is troubling in a more interesting way – is that I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to take away from the show. It’s going to be hard to explain this very well without including spoilers, so this may be sketchy. It was quite clear to me that this was meant to be more than just a thrilling ghost story – there are themes of family dynamics and how those repeat from one generation to the next, of the relationship between the living and the dead, of sin and forgiveness, of how lies and secrets can poison the soul.

I think my question about the takeaway is really a question about the theology of the show, oddly enough – and I know even less about theology than I do about musicals, so it’s possible that the gap in understanding is all on me. I guess I’m just not sure, in the end, what position the story takes on the possibility of redemption. The musical finale said one thing and I’m not entirely sure the script was saying the same thing. It kind of felt like when I write a poem that has a bang-up final couplet, boom boom perfect ending, but the couple of stanzas before the couplet are a mess and you don’t really feel like the ending was arrived at, more like I got tired of trying to get to the ending I knew I wanted and so I just gave up and stuck the ending on there. But maybe I’m meant to walk out of the theater asking the question about redemption?

I can’t really go farther than that without spoiling it, and I do think it is good enough to be worth seeing, so I don’t want to spoil it. Go for the very strong performances, go for the great music, go so you can explain to me what I’m not quite getting about the theology thing! It’s playing mostly around the Midwest through early November; I wouldn’t be surprised if it – or possibly a slightly revised version of it – ends up touring more widely, so keep an eye out.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Review: Ghost Brothers of Darkland County

  1. Thanks for that review! I heard from another friend who also isn’t a fan of musicals what she thought this morning and the contrast is quite interesting! I’m going to share this with her! I was very upset to have missed this show, but my incessant coughing would have been really, really annoying, I felt. :-)

  2. Tony

    I am going to see this on Nov. 6 in Grand Rapids Mi. Thanks for the review! I bought my tickets back in May and I love musicals and I love Stephen King and John Mellencamp. So I could not resist! I read another very incomplete review that said it was terrible. I like your review better. I can’t wait!

  3. Susan

    So what did you think Tony? I was there in 4 th row orchestra seating. I loved it! Emotionally assaulting, as Steven King would call a good horror story. Can’t stop thinking about it. The acting, music, story… Incredible.
    ~Susan

  4. Anthony j bajdek

    Hi Susan, I was right behind you in the 5th row, seat 30! Overall I liked it. It was a little slow to start and I wasn’t sure if I liked the format of the show, but eventually it started to grow on me. By the time we hit intermission I was hooked. It was a classic Stephen King tale with a wonderful twist at the end. The music was terrific and I think John Mellencamp did a superb job with the lyrics and melodies. Tear This Cabin Down was the showstopper for me and my sister. I think the vocal performances were all great and the band was spot on. The only criticism I have is that I thought the acting was a little weak. I thought the rivalries between both sets of brothers could have been written and performed better. Their hatred seemed childish and silly and didn’t capture the strong emotion needed to justify their violence. But the strong all around performances by the entire cast and band supported the story and music enough to give it an A-.

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