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article imageReview: 'Ghost Brothers of Darkland County' is great, has room to improve Special

By Travis McKnight     Dec 5, 2014 in Entertainment
“Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” had a great one-night showing in Phoenix, Wednesday evening. Despite its problems, the show deserves a tour filled with more than one-off performances.
In “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” a Southern Gothic musical by Stephen King and John Mellencamp, brooding souls, impious hearts and volcanic tempers lead the McCandless family down a dismal path that’s bursting with fraternal bickering about misplaced love, lust and jealousy.
The production is nearing its conclusion of a month-long tour, and the musical stopped in Phoenix Wednesday evening for a one-night, nearly sold-out performance.
Wednesday’s show was an absolutely splendid way to spend an evening. The fantastic cast breathed life into Mellencamp’s soulful blues ‘n’ roots songs that brim with gospel and folklore, and they delivered King’s mischievously dark and witty writing with stark eloquence. But a lack of coherence between the plot and the musical numbers, poorly developed characters and occasionally awkward stage direction hold “Ghost Brothers” back from achieving its potential.
Inspired loosely off true events, the tale takes place in Lake Belle Reve, Miss., and centers around Joe McCandless (Billy Burke) being stuck in purgatory until he faces inner demons involving his brothers, Andy (Travis Smith) and Jack (Peter Albrink), who let a fraternal feud fueled by overzealous jealousy concerning their seductive sweetheart, Jenna Farrell (Kate Ferber), lead to the deaths of all three. Upon recognizing eerily-similar circumstances happening with his two sons and their own femme fatale, Joe summons his fracturing family to the lonely cabin where his past of murder and mayhem began. Despite hoping to quell the brewing fire, thanks to a gleefully devilish character constantly bathed in red light known as The Shape (Jake La Botz), things don’t go quite as Joe planned.
From left: Joe Tippett (Drake McCandless)  Gina Gershon (Monique McCandless) and Lucas Kavner (Frank...
From left: Joe Tippett (Drake McCandless), Gina Gershon (Monique McCandless) and Lucas Kavner (Frank McCandless) bicker with each other about their characters' lives.
Photo by Glenna Goldman
Most of the first act centers on Joe’s sons, Drake (Joe Tippett), a failing local rock musician and mechanic, and his brother Frank (Lucas Kavner), a college-educated novelist who just sold his first book. Their relationship is perfectly summarized and foreshadowed in the song, “Brotherly Love,” where Frank tells us: “Well, I don’t love my brother and he don’t think much of me; we don’t like each other and we never can agree … If it weren’t for the mother in charge, I would put you in your grave.”
Fraternal hatred is a common theme in the McCandless lineage, and Drake and Frank are constantly at each other’s throats over parental love, sibling jealousy and the tantalizing Anna Wicklaw (Kylie Brown), who is the mistress of both brothers. The boys’ mother, Monique (Gina Gershon), tries to simmer the fraternal flames, but not to much avail.
The second act rapidly switches between 1967 and 2007 as Joe recounts how his brothers’ bitter rivalry turned sour and got them and their lover killed. As Joe tells his tale, the family dynamic evolves, for good and bad. And thanks to subtle manipulations and soothing lies by The Shape, the characters get to discover how easily personal fears and self-doubt can unravel a person’s soul, and destroy everything they hold dear.
Alongside the main cast are the phantoms of Andy, Jack, Jenna and the McCandless caretaker, Dan Coker (Eric Moore) — all dressed in white — who, unbeknownst to the living characters, influences Joe and his family toward letting go of their anger, and moving forward in life. Plus, a folksy narrator, aptly named Zydeco Cowboy (Jesse Lenat), kept the plot moving along in fabulous fashion through rockabilly riffs and audience engagement.
Monique (Gina Gershon) convinces Joe (Billy Burke) to do what s necessary to save his family.
Monique (Gina Gershon) convinces Joe (Billy Burke) to do what's necessary to save his family.
Photo by Glenna Goldman
Perhaps it’s because Stephen King is one of my favorite popular authors and I know the astonishingly deep characters he can create, but I’m disappointed in the characters in “Ghost Brothers.” They’re thin stereotypes who too often resort to repetitive quips during arguments that limp the show along, instead of harnessing his literary mastery to produce thought-provoking, relatable people that propel the plot alongside Mellencamp’s wonderful tunes. While the actors played their roles magnificently, particularly the ever-smooth Jake La Botz and tormented Billy Burke, they’re near impossible to relate to because of their all-too generic backstory.
King’s novels are well-known for containing nefarious twists and turns, and keeping the reader’s attention riveted to the story at hand. But in “Ghost Brothers” he feels too restrained and grounded; he slips in creative winks here and there, mostly though excellent one-liners for the Shape and Joe and well-timed culture references, but the shock and awe factor King’s writing so frequently demands doesn’t ever fully show itself — even the ending lacked the raw, emotional appeal his books deliver.
The fascinating thing is that I suspect King’s writing would have felt a bit more draped in bravado if the director Susan Booth kept the darker, gritty atmosphere the musical presented in its first iteration, which premiered in Atlanta two years ago. At that time, the play’s realism took precedence through props and bloody deaths. Despite King telling The Star that the play would contain “a lot of blood,” not one drop spilt Wednesday night.
Instead, the play took the approach of an old live radio show performance, using a limited set and practically no props. Why this approach is taken I’m not sure; the decision is certainly not appropriate for either time period. Accordingly, it was mostly up to our imagination as the audience to conjure the setting, gruesome deaths and weapons. Additionally, the actors never left the stage, which was immensely awkward — during certain songs it left actors standing weirdly frozen in place. I’m positive I missed subtle aspects of the show because of this directional choice. While I respect the difficult duty placed on the casts’ shoulders to sell this style of performance, which they did very well, the lack of visual realism detracted from their otherwise immersive, intimate performances.
However, what’s marvelous about this musical is despite the lackluster characters and sometimes slippery plot, I really enjoyed the play as a whole. Typically any show that can’t keep me entwined with the characters’ problems loses my interest fast. “Ghost Brothers” on the other hand, keeps me entertained throughout the entire performance — a consequence of the actors’ caliber and Mellencamp’s mostly outstanding songs.
Kate Ferber powerfully sings the rock song  Jukin  as Jenna Farrell alongside the ensemble.
Kate Ferber powerfully sings the rock song "Jukin" as Jenna Farrell alongside the ensemble.
Photo by Glenna Goldman
The music is consistently the strongest part of the show. The musical numbers are performed by Mellencamp’s own band, led by Andy York. Coupled with the musical direction by Grammy Award-winner T Bone Burnett, the tunes never hit a flat note.
Contrary to King’s simplistic script, Mellencamp’s songs evoke thought-provoking poetry that delves into characterization, instead of driving the plot forward. Creating the characters' backstory through the songs is an interesting technique. Sometimes it works, like the all-telling “That’s Who I Am,” gorgeously sung by Kylie Brown, where she admits: “When you hold me tight and look into my eyes, I can suckle you into believing all my lies; that’s who I am, one thousand percent illusion.” Or the overtly evocative song “That’s Me,” when The Shape announces: “When you feel like smacking your brother, that’s me; when you feel like cheating on your lover, that’s me ... I can get you to screw up your life.”
But other songs like “Monique’s Song” and “My Name is Joe” simply feel unnecessarily forced and drag out the musical. For some people this storytelling method might work great, but the sheer amount of foreshadow included in the lyrics impacted King’s ability to offer twists and turns, which didn’t suit my fancy.
Despite its flaws, “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County" is a wonderful and fun adventure. Although the musical is not ready for Broadway, with a few tweaks the magnificent cast might be heading that direction. When it pops back up in the coming years, I’ll certainly watch it again.
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