Retro Review: Southern Gothic That Scares and Mostly Satisfies: Stephen King and John Mellencamp Conjure Up THE GHOSTS OF DARKLAND COUNTY

The cast, creators and director of GHOST BROTHERS OF DARKLAND COUNTY following the world premiere on April 11, 2012. Photo credit: Raymond McCrea Jones.

By James Kelly
Contributing Music Editor

Over 12 years in the making, the collaborative effort of John Mellencamp and Stephen King, GHOST BROTHERS OF DARKLAND COUNTY, finally comes to life at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre in a world premiere run that lasts through May 13.  Based on a true story, the tale of brotherly hate combines Mellencamp’s neo-americana songs (with live music, directed by T-Bone Burnett), King’s dark horror gothic tale spins, and first class direction by Alliance Artistic Director Susan V. Booth.  It is an endeavor that works incredibly well on many levels, but inevitably leaves something to be desired at other points.

Set in a family cabin outside of a small town in rural Mississippi, the story alternates between 1967 and 2007, telling parallel tales of two pairs of brothers, each with their own rivalries and conflicts. The adult father of the 2007 brothers is the younger brother of the 1967 brothers. Having witnessed a horrific family tragedy as a ten year old, he finally decides to disclose the secret he has kept for 40 years in order to save his own sons from a similar fate. The deeply convoluted story line meanders a bit in the first act set-up, but picks up steam in the second act and catapults the viewer into a shocking and unpredictable conclusion that is trademark Stephen King.

Stephen King attending the Alliance Theatre's world premiere musical . Photo credit: Greg Mooney.

The music propels the story, and while Mellencamp’s songs are basically tailor-made for the plot advancement, the quality varies from wonderful standalone tunes that would be great to hear in and of themselves, to a few numbers that seem to struggle to fit in the context of the story, and a few that are more or less “show tunes.” The live band is tight and on the mark, and overall the vocalists are adequate. Standout performers include Jake LaBotz as “The Shape” a devilish storyteller who narrates and “choreographs” the action while performing some of the show’s best songs, young Royce Mann perfectly captures a 10-year-old’s reactions to the unfolding horror, and Christopher Morgan, playing both a bartender and “spirit guide” whose songs bring depth and emotion to the story. The other performers all deliver adequately; although some of the ensemble music pieces seem a bit forced and mechanical at times.

The most obvious star of the show is the absolutely stunning staging. The set is a work of art, and the lighting and use of projections create an atmosphere of true Deep Southern gothic drama. With ephemeral images wandering aimlessly around the stage, characters casually sitting and walking from one place to another, a well done “Lover’s Leap” and functional water tower, the stage actually seems as big and spooky as Darkland County, while simultaneously retaining the intimacy of a small cabin living room.  There are multiple homages to King’s prior projects, including a bar scene reminiscent of THE SHINING, and of course, a car (not named “Christine”).

A lot of work and effort obviously has gone into this very complicated and powerful production, and risks were taken with mostly good results. For fans of live theater, contemporary music, and Stephen King, there is something for everyone.

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