The pairing of roots rocker John Mellencamp and horror scribe Stephen King for a Southern Gothic musical may sound irresistible. But it takes more than a groove and gore to make this tedious tale of brotherly bile work on stage. Sketchy character development, awkward staging and unclear storytelling make prospects for future life iffy beyond this world preem at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater.
Tale centers on two pairs of young adult siblings, one duo in 1967 and the other in 2007. The ’60s brothers Jack (Peter Albrink) and Andy (Travis Smith) battle over Jenna (an alluring Kate Ferber). All three come to tragic ends in a cabin in the Mississippi woods — witnessed by little brother Joe (Royce Mann) — as the tuner begins.
The departed trio haunts the cabin, which is where the 2007 brothers — the sons of the now-adult Joe (Shuler Hensley) and his wife Monique (Emily Skinner) — also fight over a girl, Anna (Kylie Brown).
Older Joe has gathered his family to tell the full story of what he saw when he was 10, but his hesitancy drags on for most of the show. When “the truth” is finally revealed, it isn’t much of a surprise, though what comes after is — because it is so poorly set-up.
Presiding over the twin shaggy dog tales is a devilish spirit named The Shape (Jake La Botz), and there’s a good ghost (Christopher L. Morgan) hanging around too, though his back story is less than a fleeting thought.
Mellencamp’s songs either provide character comment, action accompaniment or honkytonk atmosphere, and while giving the show some percussive power, they rarely lift the proceedings emotionally. T. Bone’s Burnett’s music direction and Andy York’s arrangements are tops.
Perfs struggle to find authenticity for one-note or contradictory characters. Hensley plays the single tortured-soul chord throughout; La Botz does slinky evil well but even this shtick grows tiresome; Skinner’s character is all over the place but gets a boost from her solo songs. The quartet of brothers tend to blur in their constant bickering, though Guarini’s singing is strong, as is Morgan’s.
But the principal weakness is King’s unfocused storytelling. The pairs of brothers are ill-defined beyond a few broad strokes and the dialogue is clunky and crude. (“It’s the heaven that’s got lost and that’s the hell of it.”)
Helmer Susan V. Booth, who is also a.d. at the Alliance, doesn’t help matters with a lot of the playing done upstage, characters wandering in and out of the cabin for little purpose, tableau vivant poses and lovers’ leaps that are almost comic. By the end of the show, you may yearning for “Carrie.”
Songs: That’s Me, That’s Who I Am, So Goddamn Smart, How Many Days, Home Again, And You Are Blind, What’s Going On Here, Brotherly Love, My Name Is Joe, Tear This Cabin Down, Lounging Around in Heaven, And Your Days Are Gone, One Belle Reve Time, Jukin’, Put Me in the Ground, What Kind of Man Am I, Away From This World, A Rose for Poor Anna, The Truth Is Here.