BY CATEY SULLIVAN | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
It took more than 15 years of collaboration, but an entire generation’s worth of time wasn’t enough for Stephen King and John Mellencamp to forge a workable musical collaboration.
Playing for a single performance Friday night at the Oriental Theatre, “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” features a haunting score by Mellencamp that is continuously and maddeningly interrupted by King’s preposterous backwoods cheeseball book of ghosts and guns and cliches. And while there is much to praise about the twangy, bluesy tunes that musical director T Bone Burnett gets from the ensemble, the surrounding dialogue makes the likes of “Silent Night, Deadly Night II” seem like Shakespeare in comparison.
‘THE GHOST BROTHERS OF DARKLAND COUNTY’
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
It’s a darn frustrating shame, because Mellencamp’s music really is glorious, thanks in large part to Burnett’s masterful work with a four-person onstage band. Along with a 16-person cast, Andy York (guitars), Dane Clark (percussion), Jan E. Gee (bass) and Troye Kinnett (keyboards and harmonica) create a soundscape with the primal beauty of a midnight campfire.
Musicality aside, “Ghost Brothers” is a swampy stew of love and lust and death in which nobody seems to have any authentic reason for doing any of the outlandish things they do. Directed by Susan V. Booth, the story centers on two sets of brothers and a lot of heavy-handed references to Cain and Abel and that troublesome apple that got their parents into so much trouble. With folksy narration from a “Zydeco Cowboy” (Jesse Lenat), the torrid tale wanders erratically between 1967, when the first pair of brothers fight over girls and guns, to 2007, when two brothers from the next generation do likewise. Linking the four siblings is a haunted cabin in the woods and one Joe McCandless (Billy Burke), little brother to the 1967 brothers and father to the 2007 brothers.
For the interminable first act, papa Joe has gathered his quarrelsome adult sons Drake (Joe Tippett) and Frank (Lucas Kavner) and his hard-drinking, feisty, floozy wife Monique (Gina Gershon) at the cabin for some kind of long-festering confessional. Joe is a tortured soul, and much of the show is devoted to establishing precisely how teeth-gnashingly tortured he is. The root of the trouble, as Joe repeatedly avows, is that he cannot bear to tell “the truth” about exactly what happened to his two older brothers that fateful night in 1967.
While Joe is busy emoting, Drake and Frank are busy fighting like a pair of sleep-deprived 7-year-olds hopped up on Adderall-laced Pixy Stix. Mama Monique, meanwhile, is swilling from her flask, wailing about families torn asunder and throwing shade at Drake’s randy girlfriend Anna, a young gal whose candy-apple-red micro-mini is barely a flounce away from revealing the good china.
With the second act, Joe finally gets “the truth” out about the fate of his beloved older brothers Andy (Travis Smith) and Jack (Peter Albrink), and Jenna (Kate Ferber), the lingerie-clad blonde both brothers loved.
King doesn’t stop with fratricide. Before “Ghost Brothers” ends, he’s gone full-on final-scene “Hamlet” with the McCandless family, with a crucial cameo by that symbolic red apple. As for Jenna, please see the fates of all sexpot blondes who venture into isolated woodland cabins in horror stories.
The one good thing about “Ghost Brothers” is its soundtrack, which, thankfully, doesn’t include any dialogue and does include performances by Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Neko Case, Taj Mahal and Kris Kristofferson. Mellencamp fans would do well to skip the tickets and proceed directly to iTunes instead.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.