March 24, 2018
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Mellencamp’s songs stronger than King’s writing in ‘Ghost Brothers of Darkland County’

Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
T-Bone Burnett, John Mellencamp and Stephen King wrote "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," which came to the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono over the weekend.
By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff

The truth sets free the living and the dead. Unless, of course, they are characters in a musical by Stephen King and John Mellencamp. Then, they end up in the grasp of a devil called The Shape.

Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” which premiered in Atlanta two and a half years ago at the Alliance Theater, was performed Saturday and Sunday at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono, when the annual gala proceeded the production. King and Mellencamp took a bow Saturday night after the performance to a standing ovation.

The show left Orono for Toronto, to be followed by a national tour of 17 cities. It will be performed at the Merrill Auditorium in Portland on Nov. 20.

Mellencamp’s songs, for the most part, drive the action, illuminate the characters and carry King’s book, which is repetitive with a murky ending that seems at odds with the closing song, “Truth.” It’s lyrics, “The truth looks so far away, but now it’s clear,” seem to promise a happier ending than the one King penned.

The musical is structured like a radio play with the band, whose members have played with Mellencamp for years, and all 16 cast members on stage for the entire show. “Ghost Brothers” tells the tale of two sets of brothers, born a generation apart. Both pairs of men fight about nearly everything, especially the women they love.

In 1967, Andy and Jack McCandless and Jenna Farrell, the woman they both loved, all died — one brother was killed in a lakeside cabin and the other two drowned themselves. The trio now haunt that cabin. Now 2007, younger McCandless brother Joe has two sons of his own, Drake and Frank, and history appears about to repeat itself. Joe calls his sons, Anna Wicklow, the woman both sons love, and his wife Monique to the cabin to finally set the story straight about how his brothers and the woman they both loved really perished.

“Ghost Brothers” boasts 19 songs and a short reprise in the second act. That is just too many, especially since the themes get repetitive as the show meanders toward its conclusion after more than two and a half hours.

Mellencamp uses blues, roots and gospel music to great effect in his score and is aided skillfully by musical director T. Bone Burnett. “Tear This Cabin Down,” which ends the second act, is a show-stopper that best blended all those styles.

The cast, about half of whom performed in the Atlanta production, are, for the most part, outstanding. Jake LaBotz is ablaze as The Shape. King’s most fascinating character, this devil menaces the stage and audience with equal aplomb.

The show opens with LaBotz growling the song “That’s Me.” “When you feel like smacking your brother, that’s me, baby that’s me. And when you feel like cheating on a lover, that’s me. Ah yes, that’s me.” The devil really did make them do it to each other.

“Ghost Brothers” belongs to the men, especially those brothers. Travis Smith and Peter Albrink as the dead Andy and Jack, and Joe Tippett and Lucas Kavner as the feuding Drake and Frank capture all the testosterone-fueled swagger of young men whose emotions outweigh their ambition. The actors let the characters subtly mirror each other across time without becoming carbon copies of each other.

Their women, on the other hand, portrayed by Kylie Brown and Kate Ferber, seem almost interchangeable. That is by design since they look so much alike. “That’s who I am,” Brown sings as Anna. “One thousand percent illusion.” Ferber’s come on in “Jukin’” says: “I can be a lady, or a snake in the bedroom, I can be what you want me to be.” They compellingly reflect each other.

Billy Burke and Gina Gershon are disappointing as Joe and Monique. Burke never shows the audience a glimpse of the boy who adored his elder brothers. The actor also portrays no urgency in Joe’s need to cleanse his soul of the truth.

Gershon seems to be in a different play than the rest of the cast. Her Monique is more Gemma Teller, the toxic matriarch on “Sons of Anarchy,” than the drunken Southern Gothic mother of this clan she was written to be. Her performance lacks the nuance that the music of “Ghost Brothers” embodies.

But the real stars of “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” are in the band — Andy York on guitars, drummer Dane Clark, Jon E. Gee on upright bass and Traye Kinnett on keyboards and harmonica. King’s book may send theatergoers out the door scratching their heads over his last plot twist, but they’ll be humming Mellencamp’s tunes on the ride home.


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