Stephen King's Down-Home Stephen King's Down-Home Nightmare: The Novelist and Some Iconic Musical Collaborators Conjure Up a Ghost Story with a Bluesy Beat
Pearce, Michele, American Theatre
IT'S NOT EASY TO DESCRIBE GHOST BROTHERS OF DARKLAND COUNTY, THE AMBITIOUS new musical arriving April 4 at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre--not even for the all-star team that created it. The show, with book by Stephen King, music and lyrics by John Mellencamp and musical direction by T Bone Burnett, involves a pair of supernatural siblings, blood-letting stage effects, American roots music and southern gothic drama a ta Tennessee Williams, all blended into what Alliance artistic director Susan V. Booth calls a "ghost-story song-cycle mash-up."
The creative trio, all icons of popular fiction and music, seem unlikely collaborators, especially in a genre that none of them have taken on before. (A musical version of King's first novel, Carrie, was one of the most resounding flops in Broadway history in 1988, and a reimagined version is currently playing Off Broadway at MCC Theater, but King was not involved in the creation of that show.) King is the author of more than 50 novels, including the recent. 11/22/63, and more than 30 screenplays. Rock superstar Mellencamp rose to the top of the charts in 1982 with "Hurts So Good" and "Jack and Diane." Grammy-winning music producer and composer Burnett is perhaps best known as the guy who made bluegrass cool with his work on the Coen brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou?
What will Stephen King fans find to love in this ghost story? Plenty of blood. The crew includes a special-effects technician, Steve Tolin, who specializes in people getting shot in the head. Like many King novels, the story moves fluidly between past and present, living and dead. A gleefully malevolent narrator called The Shape, with bony fingers and red burning eyes, is played by the smoky-voiced film actor and blues musician Jake La Botz.
Those who love Mellencamp's music may recognize the hand of Burnett, who has produced the singer's last two albums, in the Ghost Brothers score. It is firmly rooted in classic American blues and folk, and three of the four musicians who appear in the show are from Mellencamp's band, including lead guitarist Andy York. The fourth, stand-up bass player Dave Roe, played for ycars with Johnnv Cash.
Booth, who's directing the show, has assembled a seasoned and eclectic cast of actors and musicians, including (in addition to La Botz) Shuler Hensley, a Tony-winning actor and singer best known for playingjud in Oklahoma!; Emily Skinner, who earned a Tony nomination for her work on Side Show; Justin Guarini, an "American Idol" runner-up who most recently appeared in American Idiot on Broadway; actor and songwriter Kate Ferber; and alternative country singer/songwriter Dale Watson.
The impressive design team includes another Torn* winner, scenic designer Todd Rosenthal (see sidebar on page 34), choreographer Daniel Pelzig, costumcr Sus;in E. Mickey, lighting designer Robert Wierzel, media designer Adam Larsen and sound designer Clay Bcnning.
In a nod to the spirit of Blanche DuBois, Ghost Brothers is set in Lake Belle Rcve, Mississippi, and revolves around the tragic deaths of two brothers and a young girl in 1967. Only Joe McCandless (played by Hensley) knows what really happened that night, and he is forced to decide whether to expose the secret to save his own pair of troubled sons.
The genesis of the project was a story Mellcncamp heard, about a cabin inhabited by the ghosts of two brothers who hated each other in life. He asked King to collaborate on shaping the tale into a musical, and the prolific fiction writer produced the initial draft of the book in about three weeks. That was 12 years ago.
Since then, "What a long strange trip it's been," King quipped at an Atlanta press conference in December. He took the project on "to try something that wits a little bit risky and outside my comfort zone." That proved true, and it's been something of a haul to pull Ghost Brothers together--the work was scheduled to premiere at the Alliance in the spring of 2009, but was cancelled due to unspecified script problems. …