Ghost Brothers of Darkland County by Stephen King (book) and John Mellencamp (music and lyrics) is a southern gothic, modern Cain and Able tale. A musical like you have never seen before, the world premiere production at the Alliance Theatre is sure to be one of the biggest hits to land on an Atlanta stage – ever.
A story about two feuding brothers, a tragic accident wrapped in mystery and a little boy who saw it all, Ghost Brothers isn’t the typical King horror story. More like The Green Mile than The Shinning, it follows the adult Joe McCandless, played by Shuler Hensley, as he wrestles with the decision to tell the truth of one fateful night. Late in the show, the character realizes “a lie is nothing but the truth that’s been kept too long,” but has he released the lie in time to save his own family?
True to his master storytelling abilities, King has crafted a deeply layered story with complex characters that spans two generations of the McCandless family. Equally as textured, Mellencamp’s music and lyrics, along with T Bone Burnett’s music direction, add much more depth to the story. As enjoyable as the show is, it will simmer for a while after you leave the theater.
The talent on stage brings the experience of the show to a whole new level. A casting coup, the cast is led by Hensley, a Tony Award® winner, Tony Award® nominee Emily Skinner, Broadway actors Justin Guarini and Christopher L. Morgan, and musician Jake La Botz.
Hensley shines as the adult Joe, and his deep voice glides with the music, especially in “How Many Days.” As Joe’s wife Monique, Skinner is divine. Both of her solos seem as though they were written just for her, and while she sings “What’s Going on Here,” the pain and heartbreak that she feels exudes through the emotion in her face and gestures, making it one of the most moving moments of the show.
Guarini and Lucas Kavner create recognizable characters as Joe’s sons. Their duet in “Brotherly Love” stands out, and Guarini impresses with his gritty vocals that work well. The song highlights the discord of the two brothers, which parallels the feud between their uncles.
Adding to the dispute is a love triangle of sorts involving Anna, played by Atlanta favorite Kylie Brown. Her sultry vocals in “That’s Who I Am” soar into the audience, and her characterization of the trashy Anna is one of her best performances to date.
As Joe’s ghostly and dueling older brothers, Atlantan Travis Smith (Andy) and Peter Albrink (Jack) build a foundation for the show. Along with Kate Ferber, who plays their love interest Jenna, they deliver strong performances. Ferber is the heart of the show. Stunning onstage, she displays impeccable talent. During “Home Again” and “Away from this World,” Ferber has a voice you can get lost in as it floats on the hauntingly beautiful music.
Ten-year-old Royce Mann (the younger Joe) has the “aww” moment with the sad “My Name Is Joe,” and his remarkable acting performance is on par with all of the seasoned adults in the show.
The one song that rouses the crowd (and the closest to a traditional Broadway full cast number) is “Tear this Cabin Down.” Morgan’s delivery of the song captivates and thrills. He owns the song, and the multifaceted choreography by Daniel Pelzig adds to the song’s mood.
At times, the show’s witty dialogue will have the audience laughing. La Botz’s the Shape gets many of the laughs as he expertly delivers some of the show’s memorable lines, especially in the provocative opening number “That’s Me.” He plays the shady, devilish character with a perfect dose of malicious sarcasm.
Superbly directed by Susan Booth, the show features a multi-level set designed by Tony Award® winner Todd Rosenthal that is nothing short of incredible. Finely detailed down to the Spanish Moss draping the eaves, the set, accented by Robert Wierzel’s lighting design, transports the audience between 1967 and 2007. In addition, costume designer Susan E. Mickey has developed subtle, yet rich, costumes for the characters.
One of the shows most poignant lines, spoken by Ferber’s Jenna, sums up one of the show themes: “Why do live folks make it so hard when it’s all so short?” Echoed in the closing number “The Truth Is Here,” audiences are asked to grapple with the thoughts of truth and reality both on the stage and off.
Slickly polished, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County feels ready for Broadway. Whether or not that is its next stop is unknown, but where ever it goes, it is sure to build on the success it will see in Atlanta.
One of the most exciting new musicals to premiere this year, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County runs through May 13 at the Alliance Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit the theater’s website. The show lasts approximately two and a half hours with one intermission. Parents please be aware that, as posted on the theater’s doors, “this production contains Stephen King levels of graphic violence, profanity and adult situations. Discretion is advised.”
- Kenny Norton