Adam Gwon and Octavio Solis might well have subtitled Cloudlands, their World Premiere chamber musical now playing at South Coast Repertory,  An American Musical Greek Tragedy, not all that bad an idea considering how much darker its story turns out to be than the airy romance its one-word title suggests. Regardless, if the idea of divinely preordained doom seems apter subject matter for Euripides or Sophocles (had the two tragedians teamed to write a musical with elements of both Medea and Oedipus), so it might be without Gwon’s gorgeous, haunting melodies to propel the tale of a suicidal San Franciscan teen whose depression is compounded by the discovery that Mom has been cheating on Dad.

 We first meet teenaged Monica (Addi McDaniel) gazing up at the clouds in Dolores Park and wondering in song if she couldn’t just “disappear and go into that land of clouds, a quiet place where I could go, far away from the world I know.” This being physically impossible, Monica does what she can to cope. This includes keeping a scrapbook filled with pictures of clouds and breaking up with boyfriend Kevin (Adam Kaokept) with a “we can still be friends” addendum hardly designed to make her salt-of-the-earth ex feel better.

 Meanwhile on the home front, Monica’s parents’ rocky marriage seems hardly a model for emulation, with Caroline (Katrina Lenk) and Gerald (Robert Mammana) spending much of their time at each other’s throats, regardless of the effect their discord might be having on a daughter already down in the dumps.

Things go from bad to worse when Monica happens across her mother in the arms of a stranger and, rather than confront her or tattletale to Dad, decides to follow the dark, handsome Latino (Joseph Melendez) to his place of business. Then, before you can say, “Like mother, like daughter…” Well, perhaps you can guess the rest, though maybe not the Grecian twist book writers Solis and Gwon have up their sleeves.

 South Coast Rep regulars will recall Gwon as the composer of Ordinary Days, the captivating sung-through musical which the Orange County theater gave its West Coast Premiere a little over two years ago. Though not as successful as that earlier work (perhaps Gwon should again have eschewed a collaborator), Cloudlands does serve as a showcase for one of our finest young musical theater talents. The very best thing about Cloudlands turn out to be its songs (music by Gwon, lyrics by Gwon and Solis), and since at least two-thirds of the musical’s ninety minutes are sung, this is very good news indeed.

Under Amanda Dehnert’s assured direction, performances come in a close second.

 Entirely believable as a troubled teen, McDaniel’s rich, resonant vocals both anchor Cloudlands and make it soar. Lenk and Mammana have as many straight plays on their lengthy résumés as they do musicals, which gives both of their performances a dramatic resonance mere singers would not have provided. (With her beauty, acting chops, and exquisite signature vocals, it’s no wonder Lenk won both the LA Weekly and Garland awards for the title role in Lovelace: A Rock Opera, and L.A. theatergoers will recall Mammana from his bare-it-all performance in the New York Fringe Festival award-winning The Twentieth Century Way.) Melendez makes for a suitably suave lothario, and Kaokept couldn’t be more winning as Kevin. (Kudos to SCR for casting an Asian-American actor in a role that might easily have been “traditionally” cast.)

Cloudlands looks and sounds great too. Christopher Acebo’s semi-abstract, almost all-white scenic design suggests San Francisco’s fabled hills in its ingenious use of staircases. One of its walls occasionally opens to allow us to glimpse musical director par excellence Dennis Castellano conducting and playing keyboards in the show’s terrific live five-piece orchestra. Orchestrations, richly layered, are by Bruce Coughlin. Lap Chi Chu lights Acebo’s set and Alex Jaeger’s well-chosen costumes to striking effect. Drew Dalzell’s accomplished sound design is crisp and clear. There’s even a bit of choreography by Sylvia C. Turner.  John Glore is dramaturg, Joshua Marchesi production manager, and Jennifer Ellen Butler stage manager.

 Still, much as I loved all of the above, I’m not all that convinced that Cloudland’s storyline (book by Solis) works as the basis of a musical, particularly in later scenes that may inspire “I can’t believe they went there” gasps.  That being said, at the performance reviewed, much of the dramatic impact of a pivotal climactic scene was destroyed by an audience member’s interrupting the proceedings as many as half a dozen times with loudly shouted Spanish-language insults. (Apparently, Melendez’s Victor was a bit too “cabronish” for the etiquette-challenged gentleman’s tastes.) More consistently irritating is Gerald’s insistence on speaking entire sentences in Spanish to Monica, despite knowing that she doesn’t understand what he’s saying. Just plain rude, if you ask me, especially considering that Victor character speaks fluent, unaccented English.

Still, with Gwon’s songs propelling the plotline alongside five marvelous performances and the kind of stunning design that South Coast Rep ticketholders have come to expect, Cloudlands is well worth checking out, particularly if like this reviewer you are an Adam Gwon fan. If only there were an Original Cast CD take home!

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
April 22, 2012
Photos: Henry DiRocco

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