BWW Reviews: SCR Stages World Premiere Musical CLOUDLANDS, Ends 5/6
In what first feels like just another drama that tracks the angst-filled life of a typical teenager yearning to both feel less alienated from her parents and to, of course, find her rightful "place" in the world, CLOUDLANDS—the stirring but jumbled new Adam Gwon/Octavio Solis musical now having its commissioned World Premiere production at South Coast Repertory through May 6—turns out to be so much more complex than what its first few minutes will have you believe.
Though despite having an intriguing premise and a lovely-sounding score delivered by a brilliant cast, this new musical just doesn't quite wow your socks off—but not for lack of trying.
Part chamber musical, part highly-emoted Greek tragedy, CLOUDLANDS introduces us to melancholy Bay Area, California teen Monica (Addi McDaniels), a super-sensitive only child confused about love. She often escapes to the dreamy solitude of a hilltop park where she can recline on the grass and stare longingly up at the clouds. This soothing retreat is her happy place—where she can be alone in her thoughts and, more importantly, be away from her often quarreling, meddlesome parents. Her fascination with these strata formations also populate her "cloud book," her personal journal that holds artistic musings and cut-up photos of clouds she has pasted together as her own brand of self-reparative therapy.
We soon learn that her sad feelings apparently have deeper roots: Monica has recently spent time under mental observation after surviving an almost fatal overdose of pills. Her parents—and us, the audience, by proxy—have gleaned that perhaps the overdose wasn't so much an "accident." As it turns out, she had begun work on her hard-bound art project while sequestered at the hospital.
Understandably, the almost-fatal incident and her overall mental stability put a scare into Monica's parents—themselves already suffering through their own strained marriage. Previously an often busy workaholic, Monica's father Gerald (Robert Mammana) has decided to take a leave of absence to stay home more for Monica's sake. Unfortunately, in the process, he is slowly turning into a bitter alcoholic. Meanwhile, a broken marriage and a troubled daughter—coupled with her own personal demons—are proving all too damn much for Monica's mother Caroline (Katrina Lenk), whom Monica later discovers to be having a secret affair with a handsomely distinguished Latino gentleman named Victor (Joseph Melendez) at a hotel downtown.
Everyone's sad. Everyone's angry. Everyone's confused. Everyone's hurting so much.
But here's the kicker: stubbornly determined to find out more about her mother's mystery man (and why her mother feels the need to be with this particular man in the first place), Monica starts stalking Victor, following his every move, and eventually getting enough cojones to meet him face-to-face. At their first meeting, she even coaxes him into giving her a low-level job at his Antique Maps store.
Sparks and tensions suddenly fly between Monica and Victor as he recounts his life story, all the while with Victor not knowing that his lover is really his new employee's mother. For Monica, Victor becomes inexplicably fascinating. "I'm with him and I see me," she sings longingly of Victor. Uh oh.
Caught in the middle of all these twists and turns—and essentially the only voice of reason among these broken characters—seems to be Monica's well-intentioned steadfast boyfriend Kevin (Adam Kaokept), a swell enough guy who is desperate to "save" Monica from herself and the seemingly toxic people that surround her. Well, good luck, there, buddy.
CLOUDLANDS, in its forward trajectory, presents a risky, potentially polarizing challenge: to be a serious musical tackling thoughtful themes, but envelope it all with a weak narrative that's basically hinging its entire raison d'être on the unveiling of a central plot twist—hoping that alone would elevate (no pun intended) everything leading up to it. Because the "pay off" (or "pay-offs" depending on your math) doesn't really crest until the very end, we're left with a mostly so-so musical.
I won't spoil things by declaring the two major jaw-dropping revelations (the Big Important Secret plus the resulting Event caused by said Secret) CLOUDLANDS set out to explode. They have been designed to—gasp!—shock the audience to its core, yet it won't be a stretch to say that you could probably see both of these plot points (plus others) coming a mile away, perhaps as easily as I did. Maybe this explains why the audience members I saw this show with during its press performance were all laughing, albeit awkwardly, during each of the big soapy reveals. While the reveals are still pretty jarring once they finally surface, I can't help but wonder: is laughter really what the makers intended as a reaction to such weighty moments?
While Gwon, Solis and director Amanda Dehnert, without a doubt, give it all a valiant first effort—and should be rightly applauded for their admirable attempt—CLOUDLANDS still feels like... well, a cloudy work-in-progress in its earliest workshop stages. Its outer shell is strong and relatively pretty, but its skeleton and guts have lots of holes.
Darn it, and I so wanted to like CLOUDLANDS more, particularly because SCR's last Gwon-penned musical ORDINARY DAYS, was given such an enjoyable, genuinely moving stage production back in 2010—where the songs and story combined for a thorough, satisfying theatrical experience. This time around, in collaboration with Solis' head-scratching zig zag story direction (which also spills onto the lyrics), Gwon's otherwise pretty melodies get a bit muddied within lots of awkward, melodramatic padding.
And for a musical that's hell-bent on spending 95 intermission-less minutes making sure we're all fully cognizant of every character's true feelings—through lots of sung-through monologues directed straight to the audience—it's very surprising how difficult it is for us to invest any empathy or care for what happens to these characters. Though we do ultimately feel pity for Monica, sadly, it only finally bubbles over until the very end when it's entirely too, too late.
It's all very unfortunate, because the cast that's been assembled for CLOUDLANDS is an extremely talented bunch. As Monica's rejected paramour Kevin, Kaokept belts some choice notes when he shows up to sing—even in a mid-tempo number called "What We Do" that's filled with lots of cringe-worthy 'hey, girl' lyrical pleas that made me wince a bit. Mammana and Melendez are also both riveting actors and superb vocalists, as is the incredible Ms. Lenk—whose emotionally-charged singing prowess is a welcome surprise after turning in such terrific comedy work on SCR's Elemeno Pea back in February. And, finally, as poor Monica, McDaniels possesses a strong, beautiful voice that adequately soars high above the material. She even gives me chills whenever she sings softly, her heartbreak caressing each note perfectly.
As for the show's design, Christopher Acebo's mostly white, multi-level set (a fitting blank canvas meant for John Crawford's video projections and Lap Chi Chu's effective lighting design, perhaps) is fine for the show's modern, minimalist approach, but was it really that necessary to keep opening up a side wall to reveal the live band concealed behind it several times during the show? The distraction felt extra intrusive in an already multi-layered show, even if, yes, it serves to remind the audience that they're using a live band instead of canned, pre-recorded music.
Overall, CLOUDLANDS is a fairly thoughtful musical, which—much like its collection of broken characters—is itself marred by its own well-meant aspirations. While it doesn't quite hit the mark, I believe Gwon and Solis still have a foundation to build and improve on. The songs—gorgeous-sounding as most of them are, especially when delivered by these talented singers—are, unfortunately, lost in a sea of off-putting self-aware diatribes that easy alienate instead of illicit our sympathies.
But I do hope that if the events and revelations that have happened to this family ever present themselves, I hope they are greeted with more kindness and understanding—not the snickering chuckles that met Monica by the audience that watched this musical with me. Yikes.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos by Henry DiRocco/SCR. From top: Kevin (Adam Kaokept) and Monica (Addi McDaniel) look for love among the clouds; Monica is intrigued by Victor (Joseph Melendez), her mother's secret lover; Monica discovers her mother Caroline (Katrina Lenk, right) having an affair with Victor.
Performances of the World Premiere musical CLOUDLANDS continue at South Coast Repertory through May 6, 2012. Shows start at 7:45 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday nights. Matinees start at 2:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Tickets, priced from $20 to $68, can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.