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Author Topic: Goes to Darkland County  (Read 12936 times)
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« on: April 24, 2012, 09:44:41 am »

By TonyB
Click here for photos from the event Goes to Darkland County

I headed to Atlanta to attend the Wednesday, April 11th "opening" of John's long-in-development Musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County along with the performance the next night on April 12th. I am not a theatre expert or reviewer. I am a Mellencamp fan, here to see, hear and learn more about this project that John has worked on for so long.

Before I go further let me ask you a question? Have you ever met the Devil in person? If you go to Ghost Brothers, you will get that chance. If you haven't brushed up on the story of Cain and Able you might want to check that out as well!

Your first question might be "what is the story about?" Here is a summary I like from the Creative Loafing Atlanta Blog

King makes a complicated premise simple in the first scenes. Joe McCandless (Shuler Hensley), a businessman in 2007 Mississippi, wants to unburden himself of a secret involving the 1967 deaths of his brothers Jack and Andy (Peter Albrink and Travis Smith) and the young woman they both loved, Jenna (Kate Ferber). The present-day characters unwittingly share the stage with the white-garbed ghosts of Jack, Andy, and Jenna, along with Dan Coker (Christopher L. Morgan), a deceased caretaker. Andy and Jack seem fated to act out their sibling rivalry in limbo unless Joe reveals the truth about their deaths.

Joe gathers his family at the McCandless's lake house, where his sons rising novelist Frank (Lucas Kavner) and struggling musician Drake ("American Idol's" Justin Guarini) fight over everything, particularly the affections of beautiful but mean-spirited Anna (Kylie Brown). Joe believes that if he doesn't reveal the truth about his deceased brothers, Frank and Drake will meet the same fate. (Like uncles, like nephews is that a thing?)

Meanwhile, an additional unseen character known as The Shape (Jake La Botz) continually undermines the good intentions of the living. A tattooed, gap-toothed, swaggering rock 'n' roller who could be Satan himself, The Shape preens through the opening numbers of both acts with deliciously hateful songs about leading humanity astray. Dan Coker is the counterpoint of the Shape trying to steer the characters away from his evil.

John's music is used throughout to illustrate the characters and the situations. More often than not, the songs are setting contest and reflecting back on what has transpired instead of the more typical Broadway use of telling the story and performing dialogue through the songs.


Some time ago, John purchased a cabin in the woods of Southern Indiana, near Lake Monroe. He soon felt there was something creepy about it after he stayed there. He soon discovered, from the locals, the cabin was home to a grim story about people who died in the cabin and that it was,  apparently, haunted. John took this core of a story and turned it into a short story thinking, it might be best served as a musical. He reached out to Stephen King in 2000 to see if he would be interested helping create the project. Stephen signed on, taking John's premise and created a full story. As they went along, John wrote the songs and music of the story to fit the times, locales, and characters. Over the past 12 years, as the project was created and refined, there were many additions and subtractions to the script. John created dozens of songs and musical pieces along the way. At several points, private workshops were done where actors were hired to work through the show, including live music, to get a feel for how it was coming together with real actors. A script and demo recordings were one thing, but getting people on stage singing and playing the songs were another.

During the workshop period, both creators put their stamps on the project. King developed deep characters and John crafted music fitting the characters and the setting (southern Mississippi in 1967 and 2007), while at the same time having the special Mellencamp magic. Stephen developed the 2007-era brothers with one as a budding writer and the other a budding musician following in the footprints of John and Stephen.

When John began to work with highly-regarded Producer T Bone Burnett in 2007, he sought T Bone's thought and input on the project. T Bone has a long history of producing music in the styles needed for the production and he was brought on to help with the music production. Ultimately, as the project neared stage readiness, John and Stephen decided that they wanted to release a commercial version to include a book, a CD with the songs, and a CD including a radio play-style with A-list singers and actors voicing the roles of the characters and singing the songs. T Bone, now dubbed the Musical Director, oversaw the creation of these CD's which are planned for a 2012 release.

John and Stephen believed they had the project ready a few years ago and scheduled it to open at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta GA for the 2009 season. The Alliance is considered one of the best houses in the country for staging new Broadway musicals and has a track record of staging the debuts of shows that would go on to success and later on to Broadway in New York. The Alliance has a well equipped and large stage similar to Broadway and Atlanta has a great scene of both actors and audience for theater productions.

On the way to that launch, a few years ago, John and Stephen decided some changes were needed, including a different director. This caused the  delay of the launch and they decided to utilize Susan Booth, the Artistic Director of the Alliance, to direct. She then assembled a technical team to create the stage, costumes, choreography, special effects, lighting, sound and production. T Bone and John oversaw the prep of the music deciding to use a small four piece band consisting of Mellencamp touring band members Andy York (Band Leader and Guitar), Dane Clark (Percussion), Troye Kinnett (Keyboards, Harmonica, Piano, Accordion) and long time Johnny Cash bassist David Roe who John used on recording sessions for his No Better Than This album. Once work got underway in Atlanta, Andy York was the music supervisor and oversaw the arrangements.

Casting netted the production a cast of 18 members including the Tony Award Winner Shuler Hensley, Tony Award Nominee Emily Skinner, Broadway actors Justin Guarini, and Christopher L. Morgan, and musician Jake La Botz. To most Mellencamp fans, the stand-out name from this list would be Guarini, as the runner-up on the first season of American Idol.

John, Stephen, T Bone and cast convened in the winter for a workshop and run through and then gathered again several weeks before the opening of the production for rehearsals. Changes and adaptations were made to the show to fit the actors and to better shape the story and music. At this time, Booth's team created an elaborate and extremely varied set that filled the entire stage and certain areas of the set stretched to three stories high. The center of the set is the cabin where most of the story takes place, including the living room with fireplace mantle and a bedroom and front porch. There is an adjacent garage with a Pontiac that rolls out during pertinant scenes.

The left side of the second story features The Dreamland Cafe. Above that is the perch where the band plays. There are several staircases for the characters to move between the levels. On the right center of the stage includes the straight-up Belle Rive water tower. The largest and tallest piece of the set includes a ladder for the characters to climb up at a height of probably 20 feet. There is a wall on the far right side where the more minor settings slide out from with two rising platforms from the floor where other set items raise up. On the audience far left of the stage is "the leap" at Lake Belle Reve.

The production provided us with a tour of the set so we could get a close up look. The set is beautiful and very detailed, right down to the crumpled Pabst Blue Ribbon cans in the corners. The cabin adjusts for the time frame of the scene. For example a bookshelf switches out for board games (in their era-proper boxes) of the 60's. Posters on the bed room wall switch from Shania Twain and Kurt Cobain to Nancy Sinatra. The kids names are carved into the bunk beds. Details are abundant; the floor are planks of wood, speakers are hidden in set pieces. The Dreamland Cafe's bar has an intricate bottle cap motif including numerous crosses and an inlaid painting that may be a Mellencamp original. The license plate on the car reads JM 1919. The band is partially hidden by a clear screen so not to be the focal point but Andy York is clearly seen leading the music and rocking out throughout the show.


The process for this show is that after the private rehearsals, the show opens to previews, which started Wednesday April 4th and then launches into the official opening night on April 11th. The formal opening is when the press is invited to review the show, with a red-carpet type opening and celebration post-performance.

There was a large crowd that gathered for the opening including the Alliance's primary supporters and patrons, celebrities such as NBA All-Star Charles Barkley, CNN's Clark Howard along with John, Stephen, T Bone. John was joined by his children Hud, Speck, and Teddi Jo and his father Richard and brother Ted and naturally by Meg Ryan. Friends and supporters of the creators were everywhere you turned, all thrilled to be there to see this new creation.

There was much anticipation from the capacity house (approximately 750 seats in a two level theater). The audience was very generous with it's applause for the singers and the songs after each one and there was much hearty laughter following the more humorous lines. The show differs from most Broadway musicals in that dialogue is not done via a song, as most of the songs are straight up songs that either recap what has gone on in the story or provide some color and context. John succeeded in his desire to not have dramatic "My Fair Lady" style of singing as he described it. The songs, in general, are not used to tell the story or move things along, as opposed to the typical musical. 

Ghost Brothers truly is a ghost story with a blues and rock soundtrack, a very unique combination. With Stephen involved you can assume there will be some twists with some blood and violence. The audience is warned by stickers on the door that read "This production contains Stephen King levels of graphic violence, profanity, and adult situations. Discretion is advised."

At the close of the show opening night after all of the actors had taken their bow and were receiving a standing ovation the cast looked side stage and encouraged director Susan Booth to come out, she drug John, Stephen and T Bone all along out to a rousing ovation! John even picked Susan up and gave her a twirl as you can see in the video below:



In an effort to not spoil too much of the story or effect of the show I won't go too deeply into the plot lines, however here is the synopsis from the program: A malevolent Shape (Jake La Botz) circles the stage, singing about Heaven and Hell. Joe McCandless (Shuler Hensley) lingers in the Dreamland Cafe, remembering the events of his life. Joe is urged to action by the friendly bartender. In 2007, he goes to his family cabin in Darkland County, MS where his brothers died in 1967, to tell his own songs Frank and Drake his tale of brother love gone sour. Frank and Drake's relationship is also under strain. Drake (Justin Guarini) stayed home after high school to play with a local band while working as a mechanic. Frank (Lucas Kavner), a college boy, will be rich after selling the paperback rights to his novel. Plus Anna (Kylie Brown), Frank's girlfriend used to be with Drake. Monique, the boys' mother, tries to find a way for them all to get along. With his sons at each other's throats, Joe's story will save or destroy the McCandless family.

The other primary characters are Joe's brothers Andy (Travis Smith) and Jack (Peter Albrink), the 10 year old version of Joe (Royce Mann), Andy and Jack's love interest Jenna (Kate Ferber), Dan Coker (Christopher L. Morgan) and country singer Dale Watson in the role of DJ and Zydeco Cowboy. The cast is rounded out by several other characters and the ensemble. Interestingly when you enter the theater the ensemble is already gathered on the fringes of the stage, some looking like statue-esque set pieces sitting on floors, benches and even the water tower. All of the ensemble are also the understudy for the main characters. For example Shuler fell ill one of the nights of the previews and had no voice so his understudy Dale Watson stepped in and took over the lead role with only about 8 hours notice! Dale, an award-winning country musician by trade with minimal acting experience, performed very well from all accounts. The show must go they always say.

The show is divided into two acts. The first (and longer) sets up the characters and the tensions among them sets in motion the twists and turns to come in the second act of the show. At the very start of Act One we meet The Shape, making a very memorable entrance in his very devilish way.  You will most likely be surprised at the directness in the way he speaks to the audience you and how easily he gets the laughs. The actor Jake La Botz has a long history as an indie rock singer.  His tattoos and gold tooth are very real and his guitar playing skills are excellent. You may note that he likes to walk around with a a very sharp looking cane, a cane that appears to be the same one John was sporting back in 2010.

There are two main settings in the production, the McCandless Cabin at Lake Bell Reve, Mississippi, 1967 and 2007 and The Dreamland Cafe. There are visits to other mini sets such as Club 41, the target shooting competition.


If you are reading this you surely are a fan of John's music and you are wondering just how it translates into this show and if it will appeal to you. I can tell you simply that you will love these songs. While John isn't singing them you can feel his imprint throughout them. With key members from his band playing them many will feel as if they would have fit right in on the Trouble No More, Life Death Love and Freedom and No Better Than This albums. Some of them are bluesy and swampy, several are very upbeat and bouncy, most are very catchy and will have you singing along very easily. There are some very gentle and touching songs with soft instrumentation. Knowing that John and T Bone (along with Andy) created these songs is fascinating, especially the stuff that seems so different than what John has released in the past, such as the very campy pieces The Shape delivers. There are some real throbbing and stomping numbers ("So Goddamn Smart" and the Act 1 closer "Tear This Cabin Down." There are a few numbers that would seem perfectly at home on a record like Freedom's Road ("How Many Days" "And Your Days Are Gone" and "Home Again." Because the show features several lead female characters John got to write songs for their range and circumstances in the show. "Jukin'" performed by Jenna in 1967 is a fun slab of Rolling Stone style rock and both of Monique's songs are very touching and tender.

Shuler Hensley's key songs feature his powerful lower sing register, which is easy to liken to Johnny Cash both in tone and power. Even young Joe gets his own song explaining his relationship with his brother sung very clear and sweet with Troye Kinnet's high pitched bar room piano sound he used on "Walk Tall" on John's most recent tour. The band gets in on the acting too when they are summoned down for a scene to back Drake (Justin) playing in a local bar giving them a brief spotlight at the center of the stage. Observant fans will notice that Drake is playing a Gibson Dove, the stage backup guitar that has toured with John for years. The show's final bows are done with the band jamming away with everyone clapping and bouncing like it was an encore at John's show, no surprise the band gets a rousing ovation from the audience when the cast makes note of them at the bows.


Working from the assumption that many Mellencamp fans have never experienced a Broadway theater level show, here are some observations I made. Most people were dressed nicely, plenty of suit coats and nice cocktail dresses, no tuxes. There were plenty of jeans. The show starts pretty close to the listed time on the ticket, there is a fifteen minute intermission. The theater is located in Midtown and there are numerous restaurants within a few blocks walking distance. The Alliance is inside the Woodruff Center which includes several other halls for the Atlanta Symphony and other productions. Adjacent to the Alliance is the High Museum which has a number of art exhibits including the current exhibit of the works of Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. It is of note there is plenty of advertising in and around Atlanta for the production, highway billboards, newspaper ads, TV ads etc.

The show is in a dark theater. The music is plenty loud, not ear-plugs needed loud however. The music is about one third of the total time of the show. The front row of seats is right at the lip of the stage and the actors are right in your face. The show is not overly gory but there are moments of violence and a few twists and turns that might take your breath away. There is plenty of adult language and cursing, but nothing extremely offensive.

There is a surprising amount of visual effects, images projected onto the set, silhouettes of people projected around, the year is often projected along with key phrases, watch for them for clues of what time period you are in. When you enter the theater, members of the cast will be on stage at various places, sometimes they will look stone still but others will move around. There is music playing with folk, country and Cajun styling, it actually is Troye, Andy, and Dale Watson playing, although pre-recorded. The music is playing from the fictional WWFW radio station with the Zydeco Cowboy spinning records and talking between them. The first act lasts about 70 minutes. It is common for people to laugh out loud and applaud after the songs. There is even a brief sing-along at the request of The Shape.

The actors in this production are the real deal. You will be overpowered by their skill and ability to deliver these parts and captivate the audience. I personally was very moved by Shuler. I thought Guarini was very impressive in showing a wide range of emotions and had real magnetism to draw you to him. I was extremely impressed by the soul vocals that Christopher L. Morgan brought to the Dan Coker role. Kate Ferber vocals in the Jenna role, especially in the final ballad "Away From This World" really stood out to me as well.

There are a few moments of dancing and choreographed routines, but they are very low key for Broadway standards. A few of these feature the whole ensemble, "Tear This Cabin Down" for example, and the are pretty cool to see.

Here is a video trailer with excerpts from a number of scenes:

You can hear the songs "Tear This Cabin Down" "How Many Days" "Home Again" during the clip.

« Last Edit: April 25, 2012, 03:17:46 pm by sharonc » Logged
I'm ROCK-in' In The USA
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« Reply #1 on: April 24, 2012, 11:49:38 am »

Thank you for the fantastic review and insights into the play.  I really love the sound of the music and what I have seen in the clip.  I so hope that this is extended or eventually comes to a theater a little closer to home.  I just can't get away for this long of a road trip this time of year between my two jobs and I really want to see this play that I have been waiting for so long to enjoy.  Congratulations to everyone involved on bringing this project together!

One of the Crazy Ones...
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« Reply #2 on: April 24, 2012, 12:44:58 pm »

What a really nice article. I am so glad that John's dad, brother and kids were there. He had great support from family, friends and fans.  Grin
« Last Edit: April 24, 2012, 08:46:48 pm by sheilafarmer » Logged
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« Reply #3 on: April 24, 2012, 01:49:31 pm »

Amazing! Thank you so much!
Stellar cast! Glad all three men were surronded by people they loved.

can't wait for the CD Grin.
« Last Edit: April 24, 2012, 01:56:54 pm by Mellenfan71 » Logged
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