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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014

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"Ghost Brothers" lives up to its famous creators' names

The long-awaited musical "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County" made its Milwaukee premiere at the Riverside Theater Tuesday night. With music and lyrics by John Mellencamp and a libretto by Stephen King (plus musical direction by T Bone Burnett), the musical took roughly a decade to make.

Even though the talent involved didn’t come from a Broadway background, they crafted an incredibly unique musical that works while reflecting some of the themes and styles present in the previous work of its creators.

The musical revolved around the character of Joe McCandless, played by Bruce Greenwood. In 1967, Joe witnessed a tragedy at the family’s cabin involving his two older brothers that both loved the same woman. 40 years later, he sees the traits that led to their downfall present in his own sons.

Joe hasn’t been able to shake what happened in the past and has never fully disclosed his version of the events that happened that night. He brings his family to the cabin to finally tell the tale that will clear his mind. However, Joe and his family are not alone in the cabin. They are joined by four spirits linked to that terrible tragedy (including the titular ghost brothers of Andy and Jack McCandless) and a much more sinister presence.

In a unique staging, the entire cast and the band were on-stage the entire time. Actors who weren't involved in a scene would remain seated while the action took place in front of them downstage.

Dramatic lighting cues were pivotal to the evening, as the show didn't feature any major set changes. Instead, the entire production took place in front of a backdrop representing the cabin and other key elements of the show.

The sound design was really well done, which mattered a great deal since some of the action on-stage was mimed, and the sound effects used added depth to the scene. Furthermore, not only was the music written by John Mellencamp, but the four-piece band that played during the show were all members of the Mellencamp Band.

"Ghost Brothers of Darkland County" spends a great deal of time allowing the audience to learn about the characters. Instead of rushing to tell Joe’s version of the story, the first act focuses on the conflict between his sons and allows the audience to see a glimpse of the toll this burden has been on Joe.

Factoring in an intermission, the production clocked in at close to two hours and 45 minutes. The pace of the show was pretty consistent with the exception of a major scene at the end of the show. Since the audience spent so much time with the characters, to suddenly have a wild change take place was jolting. The epilogue to this scene was still satisfying, but it could have been greater earned if a little more work had been put in to not sprint through this key sequence.

The cast was excellent, especially the performances from Greenwood and Broadway veteran Emily Skinner as Monique McCandless. Eric Moore’s booming voice stood out in songs featuring the full company such as "Tear This Cabin Down" and "Truth," while Zac Ballard’s much softer tone was perfect for "My Name Is Joe." However, the scene stealer of the show was absolutely Jake La Botz as The Shape, oozing the devilish delight and confidence required for the role.

It might have taken a long time for Mellencamp and King to put this show together, but for the audience at the Riverside Theater on Tuesday night, their diligence was appreciated.

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