Review: Ghost Brothers of Darkland County

Last week, my friend Heidi and I, along with her roommate, went to The Alliance Theatre to see Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a piece of musical theatre written by Stephen King with music by John Mellencamp. It’s a ghost story interwoven with rock and blues…and a very typical mind-bending Stephen King ending.

The synopsis, as posted on the Alliance’s site:

In the tiny town of Delight, Mississippi in 1967, a terrible tragedy took the lives of two brothers and a beautiful young girl. During the next forty years, the events of that night became the stuff of local legend. But legend is often just another word for lie. Joe McCandless knows what really happened; he saw it all. The question is whether or not he can bring himself to tell the truth in time to save his own troubled sons, and whether the ghosts left behind by an act of violence will help him – or tear the McCandless family apart forever.

I’ve been a Stephen King fan since I was in middle school. (Yes, I was far too young to be reading the likes of The Stand and Pet Sematery. It explains a lot about me, doesn’t it?) I’m also a big musical theatre fan, so I was looking forward to seeing this show. Let’s take it a piece at a time…

The Set
The set is on display (complete with actors sitting in place, perfectly still) the minute you walk into the theatre. It was absolutely beautiful, and some of its technical aspects were impressive. You really feel like you’re walking into a cabin in the Mississippi country.

The Story
I liked the story, but as I said above, I’m a huge King fan, so that makes me biased. Act one was a little slow, but act two had a good, steady pace and a nice twist at the end.

The Music
There were some solid songs in this show, but I actually expected a stronger rock/blues style than what we saw. “Tear this Cabin Down” was one of my favorites, as was the opening song, “That’s Me.” Otherwise, I felt like a lot of the songs could have been stronger and conveyed more attitude.

The Cast
First of all, I am totally biased toward Shuler Hensley, who played Joe McCandless. Heidi and I work with him each spring on the annual Shuler Hensley Awards for excellence in high school musical theater. The man is a Tony Award winner. What more can I say? I was also tickled to see Justin Guarini, who is best known as the runner-up on season one of American Idol. He is going to have a great stage career: his singing, acting, and stage presence were all spot-on. Emily Skinner was my favorite female cast-member as Monique McCandless. Her voice was well-suited to the blues songs she belted out.

The real standout in the cast was blues singer Jake La Botz, who played The Shape. The Shape was both narrator and instigator in the show, and he could just as easily have been called The Devil, Randall Flagg, or even the man in black (if you’re a Dark Tower fan). La Botz was simply brilliant, an evil greaser from hell with tattoos and sex appeal in spades. I immediately went home and bought his latest album, I’m a Crow, on iTunes: think Hank III singing blues and honky-tonk.

I liked Ghost Brothers, but I can see where aspects of the show will need tweaking before it’s ready for Broadway. And I hope it does make it there, because the show certainly has potential. And to whoever might direct it: please bring back La Botz as The Shape. And if you need a production manager, a lighting designer, and a writer…Heidi, her roommate and I are available!

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