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Alliance Theatre Company1
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REVIEWS

Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, by Stephen King
THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT; OR, WHY STORY IS STILL KING IN A NEW MUSICAL
Friday, April 13, 2012
3.0
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.

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