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Ghost Brothers of Darkland County

a Play with Music
by Stephen King

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Woodruff Art Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 4244

SHOWING : April 04, 2012 - May 13, 2012



In keeping with the Alliance’s tradition of producing new American musicals, the company will produce the world premiere of Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a haunting new musical with music and lyrics by John Mellencamp and book by Stephen King, as the closing show of the Alliance Stage Series season set for spring of 2012. One of the world's most popular authors and one of America’s most honored musicians have created a riveting Southern gothic musical fraught with mystery, tragedy, and phantoms of the past, along with a roots and blues-tinged score that is sure to leave audiences asking for more. Alliance Artistic Director Susan V. Booth directs, with musical direction provided by legendary producer T Bone Burnett.

In the tiny town of Lake Belle Reve, 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.

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Passive Spirits
by Dedalus
Friday, April 20, 2012

Dear Mr. King:

I am one of your biggest fans. Before you start having Annie Wilkes nightmares, rest assured this is the last time (perhaps) I’ll cross your particular dreamscape.

However, I do have to express my (modified) disappointment with your first excursion into musical theatre, “The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.” Yes there were some moments of shivery delight, some others of musical giddiness, and even a few of theatrical flourish. However, in overall structure and tone, it seemed to break a few too many cardinal rules of character and plot.

Since this is, in fact, an “open” letter, let me do a bit of a recap for all the readers who aren’t Stephen King. In 1967, two brothers, Andy and Jack McCandless and the young woman loved by them both meet a mysterious end, witnessed only by their 10-year-old brother, Joe. Forty years later, Joe’s sons Drake and Frank and the young woman loved by them both (or at least lusted after by both) are following a similar path. The adult Joe gathers the family at their doomed-by-destiny lake house to tell the story, hopefully to prevent history from repeating itself.

The entire story is punctuated by songs by John Mellencamp, that, on their own, are fine and dandy, but do a little too little to embellish this particular tale.

Let me start with the most obvious shortfall -- the ghosts. Would Stephen King, the popular writer of books and stories, ever create a supernatural “MacGuffin” like a set of ghosts who are this passive and who play such a small role in the actual development of the plot? These are ghosts who do nothing but stand around and “witness,” who never really interact with the 2007 characters. In a Stephen King book, they would be the creepies who crawl into Gentle Reader’s subconscious, who would make the plot pay off in unexpected, and ultimately, satisfying ways. Here, they are passive sprits who do little except watch and whine.

Along those lines, would Stephen King, the popular writer of books and stories, create a mythology as inconsistent as the “ghost rules” on display here? This is, after all, the writer who re-invented the haunted house mythos with “The Shining,” the space-time continuum with “The Langoliers,” and time-as-a-living-monster in the exquisite “11/22/63.” Here we see spiritless ghosts who, at one point, stick around because someone living has unresolved issues, at others, stick around because they themselves have unresolved issues.

I also have to ask, would Stephen King, the popular writer of books and stories, create a horror back-story with so little horror? The McCandless brothers (both generations) are less the victims of supernatural shenanigans than they are of arrested adolescence. Their story, when (finally) told, is petty and mundane, Joe’s lies and evasions unmotivated and pointless, the final apocalypse almost an afterthought.

Stephen King, the popular writer of books and stories, could easily create a story with this structure – a man gathering his family to unburden himself and lay to rest the ghosts that have haunted him his entire life. And it would work, because, on the page, a ghost story will inflame the gentle reader’s imagination, and take him on a journey into fear and darkness. The stage, however, is an entirely different animal (and it has claws). When we see a set full of folks sitting around talking, it is less a journey to the dark side than a static exercise in fore-stalling. There is little point in Joe stretching out this story for two acts, since the story itself has so little meat on its bones.

If you plan on developing this piece any further, may I humbly make the following suggestions:

(1) Make Young Joe more an active participant in the 1967 story. His “hiding of the truth” would have more resonance if he himself caused part of the tragedy. Yes, I know things we witness at ten can resonate throughout your lifetime (I was ten when I witnessed Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald live on TV), but passive witnesses tend to be “Meh” stage characters.

(2) Make the 1967 ghosts active participants in the 2007 story. Think how much more dramatic, more moving it would be if Frank and Drake were actually loving and supportive siblings who become alienated (and violent) because of the actions of ghost-Jack and ghost-Andy. And it would eliminate the need for “The Shape,” a clichéd and irritating character whose every line (when I could understand it) stopped the flow of the story dead in its tracks.

(3) Find some better driver for the Act One finale “Tear This Cabin Down.” It’s probably the best musical moment of the show, but it comes out of nowhere.

(4) Clean up the mythos. Stephen King, the popular writer of books and stories, would give us a “ghost culture” that is new, compelling, and, above all, consistent. Wouldn’t it be better, for example, if it were hinted that the 1967 story were driven by ghosts from an even earlier generation, or that the 2007 story affects (infects?) a future generation?

(5) Make adult Joe less passive. His actions seem more of opportunity than of intention, and Shuler Hensley here has no opportunity (and too few songs) to show us what he’s really capable of. (Along those same lines, I’m an Emily Skinner fan from way back, so, if she stays with the production, any additional songs you and Mr. Mellencamp could put into her mouth would be a thing of beauty and a joy to behold.)

There are so many good Stephen King moments and lines here (I loved “Too late always comes too early!”) that it does disappoint when the whole thing falls even slightly flat. Violence on stage is always more effective than in the movies (though not as effective as on the page), and your climax here is creepy and spectacular, but it would be better if I could have been a bit more emotionally invested in the characters.

Yes, last night’s Opening Night audience was a thousand times more enthusiastic than I seem to be here, and, overall, I had a pretty good time watching this. I just wanted to have a better time.

Maybe you (or I) should check out some of the books on writing by this Stephen King guy. He knows what he’s talking about!


Gentle Reader, Your Biggest Fan (Brad Rudy

Was There a Director? by playgoer
The role of a director should be to shape the authors' material for the stage. Did Susan V. Booth add anything to or subtract anything from your (limited) enjoyment of the production? My experience in seeing her directing work has been the distinct impression that she lets her collaborators loose and doesn't attempt to integrate their work into a consistent, satisfying production. Your thoughts?
The Invisible Director by Dedalus
I tend to have very sketchy yardsticks when it comes to discussing directing. If it's a well-known piece, is there a consistent and interesting "director's concept" that makes this production stand out from others? If its an unknown or new piecem are there obvious director "misses" (weak stage picture, bad sight lines, over-long scene changes)? Other than that, much of what I praise as good ensemble work may (in fact probably is) the result of good direction.

That being said, I've found, overall, Ms. Booth can be inconsistent -- I've really loved some of her work ("August: Osage County" for example), but at other times, wished for a stronger hand (here, for example, I suspect she gave over too much control to the writers and musical director, rsulting in the production's overall lack of focus). On the other hand, i find Rosemary Newcott's work at the Alliance almost always interesting and memorable,
by bruceparker
Friday, April 13, 2012
Creating a new musical is hard. Mr. Stephen King and Mr. John Mellencamp, the creative forces behind the new musical "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," are undeniably masters of their respective fields and have brought their considerable talents to the Alliance stage. Creating a new production takes imagination, heart, and a working knowledge of the theatre and Ghost Brothers has 2 of these 3 things. In the program notes, Mellencamp describes his brainchild as an unorthodox musical where the songs expound upon moments rather than push the story forward, but he seemingly fails to fully realize that the roots of the musical theatre is just that—ask anyone who’s seen a production of "Camelot." This production certainly is an unorthodox one, but you can almost hear the program writers straining to come up with synonyms for “unconventional” in an effort to spin a production that is ultimately lackluster.

You would think that Ms. Susan Booth, the long-time Artistic Director of the Alliance Theatre, would bring her skill as a theatre artist and her know-how for the theatre’s sense of story structure to the production, but any attempt to do so is lost in an over-produced cluster of singing skeleton projections, rolly-polly sing-a-long texts (not a joke), and tiresome title slides that let you know—if you couldn’t figure it out on your own—that the story jumps back and forth between 1967 and 2007. Unfortunately, she wastes the talents of the ensemble and most end up becoming little more than singing set adornments. Sadly, we rarely get to see the full cast in its true might.

Not to say that the show is sloppy; indeed, the production is tight, but most of the show’s success relies on T-Bone Burnett’s excellent musical direction, the stage management’s focus, and the cast’s strength and heart to push through a story that essentially becomes schlock by the end of the two hours. Though the character of the Shape (better known as the Devil, but with sleeve tattoos and a cigar-box style guitar) is truly a force of chaos in Darkland County, he literally pushes the characters into decisions and actions that they might not make or do otherwise, which poses the question: if these characters have no real choice in the matter, then why are we watching it?

This show has been 12 years in the making, but that doesn’t mean that 12 years worth of work has been put into the script. Instead of pushing through to logical conclusions, Mr. King falls into his usual trap of having weird for weird’s sake: the story almost reaches a poignant and thoughtful climax and then tacks on a devastatingly clichéd Shakespearean ending in which nothing feels like it’s earned. Perhaps Mr. King was reminding himself of the rules of the theatre when he wrote the show (like when the Shape boorishly reminds us that if there’s a gun in Act One, it needs to be used in Act Two), but those bits come across as condescending to the audience. Perhaps neither he nor Ms. Booth have much faith in the ability of Atlanta audiences to follow along with an abstract story, but if that’s the case, then more’s the pity.

The production does reach moments of true and total engagement: the end of Act One is one of the most compelling moments this reviewer has seen on the Alliance stage, but unfortunately these moments are crammed between two hours of forgettable songs and character emoting. In the opinion of this reviewer, Mr. King and Mr. Mellencamp need to show a little bit more respect before they come in and start arbitrarily breaking the rules of a genre in which they have little to no experience. The theatre may be a playground of the mind, but the authors seem to be treating it as more of a plaything, a kind of wild and crazy experiment that comes off more as a joke to those looking for a satisfying night of theatre.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Dr. Ian Malcolm, fictional chaotician, just because we can doesn’t mean we should. By all means, let’s bring the gods of the arts into our city, but this reviewer would respectfully ask them to do their homework next time. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]
Exciting new production for Atlanta
by ATL_Theatre_Critique
Thursday, April 5, 2012
While Ghost Brothers had some technical difficulties including sound levels (the music was far too loud for the mics to carry the voices and some mics were clearly on the fritz), all in all I would say it was a successful opening. The story itself is an intriguing tale clearly by Stephen King of two brothers and a girl who were killed or committed suicide, and now the story is being set straight by their younger brother to his now adult sons and wife. The casting of most all the characters was outstanding, and the story line cohesive and fascinating. The aspect of the ensemble barely existing on the outskirts was fascinating, but distracting at first, until they joined the first group number.

The use of technology is quite interesting in this production, both being used to make the crowd scenes seem much more populated, and to enhance the nostalgic moments with old reels. They also did a throwback to Tennessee Williams by projecting the occasional subtitles or important words upon the stage at certain moments. The technological additions brought so much to the show. In addition, the scenic design was incredible. The stacked stage of "dreamland Cafe" on top of the rustic cabin where everything is centered is just breathtaking.

The music, for the most part, is very good. While it was hard to make out all of the words because of technical difficulties, all of the group numbers were fantastic. Many of the solo numbers were tedious (outside of the character "Jenna" who every time she took the stage she simply captivated the audience, and her voice always left you wanting more), and were revision to be made, I think the number of them could be cut down significantly. Also, concerning possible revisions, the "triple ending" as a colleague and I described it, seemed superfluous. Without giving too much away, the main character is recounting the story and seems to lie more than he tells the truth, and at the end, when the full truth is revealed it seems almost too much to handle. The wrap up was poignant, but the triple ending it took to get there seemed a bit much. And the final moment "wish a fish" seemed odd and out of place.

All in all, the production was a joy to watch (except what little of our view was obstructed by being on the far right side). I was fortunate enough to be close to the front where I really could be engulfed in the action, but a few of the set pieces prohibited me from seeing all the action, especially in and on the bunk beds.

The two characters, outside of Jenna, who really stuck out were the devil and "God" or the old black man who took care of the cabin. I couldn't help feeling like they played on the stereotype of Morgan Freeman always playing God by having a wisened old black man with white hair and beard be the figure of good in the entire story. And while the devil didn't always have a pleasant singing voice, it fit the character very well, and he was hilarious.

It is bawdy and bloody, so those young or easily offended should not attend, but if you like Stephen King, country music, and pretty sets and costumes, it's worth the $50. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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