You’ve got to be a bit patient with the musical “Ghost Brothers of Darkland Country,” a collaboration between Stephen King (who wrote the story and the dialogue) and John Mellencamp (who wrote the songs), with help from musical director T Bone Burnett.
It’s being promoted as “A southern gothic supernatural musical of fraternal love, lust, jealousy and revenge.” Yes, there’s a lot going on here, and it takes most of the first act to set everything up. But once everything is in place, the first act closing number, “Tear This Cabin Down,” is truly rousing.
The second act of the musical — which was presented at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, Tuesday night — has a similar pace. There’s a lot of water-treading early on, but King comes through with some nice twists towards the end, after some masterfully constructed misdirection. This musical is not enthralling all the way through, but you don’t leave feeling unsatisfied, either.
And it’s really a must-see for Mellencamp fans. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has written a strong batch of roots-rock songs, and four members of his band provide the musical backbone. Some of the actors — especially Jesse Lenat, in the narrator-like role of the Zydeco Cowboy — speak or sing in an approximation of Mellencamp’s midwestern accent, even though the play is set in Mississippi. You really sense Mellencamp’s rough-edged, forceful-but-dark artistic voice throughout, even though he’s not onstage.
Here’s the plot: Joe and Monique McCandless (Billy Burke and Gina Gershon) are the parents of two brothers who love the same woman, and hate each other. Joe has a dark secret in his past: his own two brothers also loved the same woman, and hated each other, and died under mysterious circumstances decades ago. Will history repeat itself?
Joining the present day characters and the Zydeco Cowboy are ghosts of the departed brothers and the woman they loved, plus a satanic character named Shape (played for outrageously over-the-top laughs by Jake La Botz, in a break from the rest of the musical’s somber tone) and others. There are 16 actors, plus the four musicians; as I said before, it takes a while to sort everything out.
The musical is staged to appear something like an old-fashioned radio play, with characters sitting onstage throughout the whole thing, but coming forward to speak at the center-stage mic, or act out scenes. When Shape isn’t slithering around the stage, there isn’t much movement; basically, the characters just stand in place. And they spend a lot of time talking or singing about themselves, or telling stories, or bickering with each other; this all slows the evening down.
“Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” was presented at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in 2012, and toured for about a month last year; the current month-long tour includes a show at the Beacon Theatre in New York, Nov. 24 (visit BeaconTheatre.com for information). A soundtrack — produced by Burnett and featuring artists such as Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Taj Mahal and Rosanne Cash singing the songs — came out last year.
Is a Broadway run in its future? Well, given the drawing power of the names involved, I wouldn’t be shocked. But it could still use an overhaul before that. The radio-show idea should be scrapped: It doesn’t add anything. And there needs to be more action and fewer songs and scenes that go back over things that have already been established.
But Mellencamp and King have already been working on this thing for 15 years. How much more fine tuning are they willing to do?