Stephen King, John Mellencamp and T. Bone Burnett have collaborated on a musical entitled “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” and it has been touring 20 small towns, including the performance on November 3, 2013 at the Adler Theater in Davenport, Iowa.
Only two stops remain on the tour, one in South Bend, Indiana, and one in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I can’t help but wonder if the troupe will then take the show to Chicago and/or New York and this is their way of working the bugs out.
The 15 singers and 4 musicians who comprise the cast spin the tale of ghosts who cannot be freed until the truth is told. That device is one King has used before, most recently with passengers at a railroad station who are stranded there, seemingly forever, as ghosts.
One of the most pleasant surprises of the evening was how good Bruce Greenwood’s singing voice is. This talented character actor has played many, many television and movie role, including a major role in the Denzel Washington film Flight and as Captain Christopher Pike in Star Trek Into Darkness. However, Greenwood apparently played in a cover band 25 years ago, so this was familiar territory. Greenwood’s solo on the song “How Many Days” in Act I is one of the highlights of the entire play.
Two brothers went the Cain and Able route in this story now set in Mississippi (although supposedly Mellencamp had property in Indiana with a cabin with a similar story that he related to King). The boys fought over a girl, as brothers often do, and things did not go well.
The original brothers are Greenwood’s older siblings, Andy and Jack, but the lead character’s grown sons, Frank and Drake McCandless, are Joe McCandless’ concern now, as they seem to be on the same path to destruction. The women in the lives of the two pairs of brothers, Jenna and Anna, are well-played (and sung) by Kate Ferber and Kylie Brown. As Anna says, “I’m a whole lotta’ big girl and I know what men like. I want to make damn sure you know what you’ve gotten yourself into now.”
Unless Joe McCandless (Greenwood) tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about a fateful night in 1967, his own sons in 2007 may suffer a similar fate and wind up in the limbo or Purgatory represented by the Dreamland Cafe…”the place where lost people go.”
The sets in this touring production were spare, mostly consisting of chairs and a large drop cloth representing the cabin where all the mayhem begins. If this does go on to Broadway (or Chicago), I hope they drop the Prairie Home Companion spare style and put up a cabin like the house in “Fences,” a Denzel Washington vehicle. It would add a lot to the production.
The ghosts are also pretty cut-rate, depicted as such by the wearing of raggedy choir robes in off white. “Here we are and here we’ll stay until the truth sets us free” is the familiar unifying message from King.
The liner notes for Jake La Botz, who plays “the Shape,” were interesting, describing him as dropping out of high school at 15 and hitting the road for hobo camps. Then Jake was a roofer, boilermaker, graphic factory worker, and obituary writer before he turned to the guitar and became a back-up artist to such greats as Ray Charles, Etta James, Dr. John, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and Taj Mahal. His unique outfit, consisting of a vest, no shirt, multiple tattoos and a walking stick, was also unusual.
Greenwood told David Burke of the Quad City Times that the play was about “the corrosive nature of secrets and how elusive redemption can be.” He added, “But with Stephen King, it’s so dark…It’s like Prairie Home Companion on acid.
Supposedly, the production took 13 years to stage. I can only assume that’s because King was churning out more novels (“Dr. Sleep,” the continuation of “The Shining” most recently) because his part in the play seems the easiest. There are a lot of clichés utilized in what is billed as “Libretto by Stephen King.” They start early, when young Joe (Zac Ballard) hears talk of having his “britches tanned” and they continue through such well-worn expressions as “rode hard and put away damp” and lines like, “Does the phrase ‘up shit creek’ ring a bell?'”
Those colloquialisms didn’t scream “original,” to me. King’s words do ring truer on lines like “Too late always comes too early.” There is also a familiar echo to the line, “You can never do the right thing after you just closed up the local honky-tonk.” That struck me as about as original as the old “a motorcycle is an accident waiting to happen” cliché and “Slap my tail and call me Stinky” didn’t strike me as Deathless Prose or Great Writing, either.
But I digress.
The original songs (Mellencamp and T. Bone Burnett) are the real saving grace of this production. Many sound as though they could become classics. (Any time you put “home” in the lyric, it seems to signal a home run.) There were those in the cast who stood out like a diamond amongst zircons, Greenwood most of all, and the caretaker, sung by Eric Moore, who has previously appeared in Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell and Man of LaMancha was outstanding.
All in all, it will be interesting to see if the play now goes to a larger venue and, if so, what they charge for tickets. Tickets at the Adler ranged from $39.50 to $59.50 to $69.50. The theater was not full, but the audience gave the cast a standing ovation at the end of the three hours.
On this tour of smaller houses, the 20 cities included Bloomington, Indiana; Louisville, Kentucky; Knoxville, Tennessee; Asheville, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; Evansville, Indiana; Indianapolis, Indiana; Akron, Ohio Columbus, Ohio; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Madison, Wisconsin; Rockford, Illinois; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Sioux City, Iowa; Ames, Iowa; Davenport, Iowa; South Bend, Indiana; and Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the tour ends on November 6th.