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Ghost Brothers of Darkland County

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Atlanta's Alliance Theater is premiering a very unusual - and in my mind very interesting - new production next year. From the Alliance's website:

In keeping with the Alliance’s tradition of producing new American musicals, the company will produce the world premiere of Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a chilling new musical with music and lyrics by John Mellencamp and book by Stephen King. ... Based on a true story, one of the world's most popular authors and one of America’s most honored musicians have created a riveting Southern gothic musical fraught with mystery, tragedy, and ghosts of the past, along with a roots and blues-tinged score that is sure to leave audiences asking for more. Alliance Artistic Director Susan V. Booth directs, with musical direction provided by legendary producer T Bone Burnett.

In the tiny town of Lake Belle Reve, Mississippi in 1957, a terrible tragedy took the lives of two brothers and a beautiful young girl. During the next forty years, the events of that night became the stuff of local legend. But legend is often just another word for lie. Joe McCandless knows what really happened; he saw it all. The question is whether or not he can bring himself to tell the truth in time to save his own troubled sons, and whether the ghosts left behind by an act of violence will help him – or tear the McCandless family apart forever.

The Alliance was the premiere for Broadway's The Color Purple, so I would imagine the producers are hoping for another musical that can move up to the Great White Way.

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The show is ending its premiere run in Atlanta, but I unfortunately have not been able to make it.

Fittingly, the local Atlanta critic raves, while the NY Times critic thinks the show needs the heavy hand of an editor to streamline it. Both reviews praise the musical direction of T Bone Burnett.

Atlanta: "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County" a musical horror story that twists and turns

Their poignant ballad “Home Again” is just one of some 20 songs in Mellencamp’s rousing score, a fusion of blues, country and rock that’s superbly performed by Booth’s 19-member cast. Under Burnett’s musical direction, the sensational four-piece band never misses a beat.

Notwithstanding the memorable solos by La Botz that open each act (“That’s Me,” “Lounging Around in Heaven”), the highlight among the production numbers (choreographed by Daniel Pelzig) is the pulsating Act I finale, “Tear This Cabin Down,” which essentially burns down the house in more ways than one (with another nod to Larsen’s innovative work).

The show spirals wildly out of control in its final 10 or 15 minutes, as King relishes the opportunity to find new theatrical methods for demonstrating his penchant for bloody mayhem. Nevertheless, watching how the bodies mount will leave you with chills.

NY: "These Ghosts Are Singing With a Southern Twang"

One benefit of this fleet of apparitions is that they provide an impressive chorus of voices to support Mr. Mellencamp’s score of blues, gospel and roots. The music director, T Bone Burnett, the Grammy-winning producer of the “O Brother, Where Art thou” soundtrack, handles a diverse range of styles without ever sounding a slick note.

Hard-driving songs like “Brotherly Love,” sung between punches by Drake and Frank, and the Shape’s impish numbers are catchy, backed by gravelly voices and modest choreography. The ensemble number “Tear This Cabin Down” closes the first act with a lift, but its warning of terrible things from the past returning has already been established, so there’s no satisfying twist to create buzz during intermission....

The intricate story of “Ghost Brothers” might work wonderfully on the page, and the show does resist cliché. Far from cheaply horrifying ghouls, Mr. King’s ghosts appear as haunted by the living as the reverse.

But the mood too often wavers. The ghosts fade into the background, sometimes on purpose, other times not.

One can understand the temptation to let Mr. King’s imagination roam, but for a delicate, collaborative form like the musical, a simpler, streamlined narrative might have made more sense.

No word yet on if the producers will try to push this on to NY, continue to refine it or drop it.

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What's interesting to me is seeing this process here in Atlanta while watching a (heavily) fictionalized version of the development process in regional theater on "Smash." It's not a great TV show by any stretch, but it is interesting how a play slowly comes together through workshops, regional runs, rewrites, etc.

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Maybe it is the medium and the nature of a TV show, but even _Smash_ seems to have a somewhat accelerated pace for a NEW production (from script to stage).


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