First Look: “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” scores with honest, rustic tunes


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Let’s start by saying this is


a review of “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.”

That would be here.

But given the pedigree of the musical talent – composer and lyricist John Mellencamp and musical director T Bone Burnett – attached to the show that debuted at the Alliance Theatre on Wednesday, we felt the songs in the production required and deserved their own deconstruction.

After all, Mellencamp and book writer Stephen King have toiled on this project for more than a decade, so naturally there is curiosity as to how well these 19 songs (and one reprise) frame King’s family ghost tale.

So this isn’t about the story or the set or the acting (though Shuler Hensley is pretty fabulous) or the King-ian plot twists. Just the music.

Well, it’s probably OK to mention that on Wednesday night, King was spotted sitting alone in the last row of the orchestra several minutes before show time and, during intermission, Burnett graciously gabbed with some fans who spotted his towering blond frame (who could miss this guy in a crowded lobby?) and signed an autograph for one zealous middle-aged guy.

But let’s talk tunes.

“Ghost Brothers,” directed by Susan Booth, is a rustic musical. There are no fancy orchestrations or swelling symphonies; simply the type of instruments you’d expect to hear in Mellencamp’s own music – slide guitar, bass, drums, harmonica, accordion – and songs that range from guttural and goofy (“That’s Me”) to a barroom stomper (“Put Me in the Ground”) to melancholy pop balladry (“Away From This World”).

Though the story see-saws from 1967 to 2007, there is no differentiation in musical styles. It’s not as if the 1967 scenes sound like Jefferson Airplane and the latter tunes like Kanye West (although there are nods to Shania Twain and Kurt Cobain in the dialogue). All of the songs are coated with a dusty veneer that works within the drab setting.

Broadway vet Emily Skinner handles two of the best songs in the show – “What’s Going On Here?”, a lament about emotional disconnect, and “On Belle Reve Time,” a Celtic-tinged ballad that mesmerizes with a tick-tock sway.

On the rootsy gospel toe-tapper “How Many Days,” the buttery baritone of Tony winner Hensley soars above the ensemble (watch as they simultaneously arch their backs at the word “many” in the chorus) and during the wrenching “What Kind of Man Am I,” Hensley intones, “Every word I say comes back to haunt me every day…the coward I’ve become, the loser in the game.”

Justin Guarini, another Broadway pro, gets in several muscular vocal turns, particularly with Lucas Kavner, his onstage sibling, during “Brotherly Love,” which features some tasty slide guitar and taunting lyrics that name drop Cain and Abel.

The show stopper of “Ghost Brothers” comes at the end of Act 1, a musically and vocally layered slow burner called “Tear This Cabin Down.” A harmonica squawks, a bass line creeps and the ensemble stomps and waves their arms in “Thriller”-like moves in the rousing song led by Christopher Morgan.

You’ll likely still be thinking of these songs hours later, not for their catchy choruses or glib lyrics, but for their truth.

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