'Ghost Brothers' is haunting but unfinished Stephen King/John Mellencamp musical

  • Blog Post by: Jon Bream
  • November 1, 2013 - 3:04 AM

Eric Moore (center) leads "Tear This Cabin Down" to close Act 1 of "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County"

Associated Press photos by Michael Conroy

A few thoughts about “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” the John Mellencamp/Stephen King musical that was performed Thursday at the State Theatre in Minneapolis.

  • If Mellencamp and King hosted a Southern Gothic “A Prairie Home Companion” that was set in rural Mississippi, not Lake Wobegone, this is what they might have come up with – if they ignored the time constraints and hired others to present it while they stayed home.
  • This 2 1/2-hour presentation (with one intermission) was more like a radio show than a musical. Props were minimal, action was limited. The characters sat in a semi-circle while the featured speaker(s) moved to the front; the four-man band, featuring two regular Mellencamp sidemen, was stationed behind them, off to the side.
  • The music was consistently compelling in a rustic, rootsy, bluesy Mellencamp kind of way. The songs illuminated the characters rather than furthering the storyline.  The numbers to end each act (“Tear This Cabin Down” and “Truth”) were pumped up in a typical Broadway kind of way, though those selections sound considerably more low-key on the all-star “Ghost Brothers” recording featuring Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson, Ryan Bingham, Rosanne Cash, Neko Case, Taj Mahal and others, including Mellencamp on one tune.
  •  The story is a little difficult to follow, especially in the first act. The second act is captivating and often riveting. This being a King creation, many people die. In short, it’s a Cain-and-Abel story about two long-feuding brothers who are fighting over a girl and a flashback to their father witnessing his two older brothers fighting over a girl that leads to the deaths of all three. In the art-imitates-life department:  one (contemporary) brother is an aspiring novelist, the other a wanna-be rocker.
  • Joe Tippett, who plays the brother who wants to be a rocker, looks like a shorter Aaron Rodgers. (Trivia: Justin Guarini, runner-up on first season of “American Idol,” played this role in the original mounting of this show in Atlanta last year.)  Jesse Lenat, the narrator character known as the Zydeco Cowboy, sounds like Mellencamp when he sings. The Shape, sort of a redneck devil, gets all the great (and funny) lines, such as hell having “dry heat” and “I want a real life” (which is a lyric from a Mellencamp hit). Eric Moore, as bartender Dan Coker, had a wonderfully robust voice. Bruce Greenwood, who played the Dad, was equally effective as an actor and a singer. Emily Skinner, as the Mother of two of the boys, had more of a Broadway-like voice whereas almost everyone else had more of an Americana singing style.
  • Since there is little any action, props and choreography, this vehicle probably could be more effective if the opening act were condensed and merged into the much stronger second act to create a 90-minute one-act. But there are 19 songs in this “work in progress,” as Mellencamp calls it.
  • “Ghost Brothers” is touring the Midwest in a series of one-night performances. The creators, who began collaborating on this project 13 years ago, have turned down a chance to do a limited Broadway run.
  • The Minneapolis show drew only about 800 people (including many in costume), a pretty modest crowd. But then it was Halloween, and there were no name performers in the cast or a track record for the show.
  • The printing on the two-sided “Ghost Brothers” program (which is the size of an oversized recipe card) is tiny – smaller than the print on a test for bifocals. Just saying.
  • John Mellencamp and Stephen King

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