Friday, April 27, 2012

"Cloudlands" Soars

On April 20th the collaboration between South Coast Repertory and two gifted artists— Octavio Solis and Adam Gwon—culminated in the world premiere of their dramatic musical, Cloudlands.  First Nighters jumped to their feet to cheer for what the Los Angeles Times has since called “An extraordinary new work...nothing short of a triumph for all concerned.”

Among those sharing the excitement on this historic night were an adventurous group of underwriters who helped make the Cloudlands journey possible, the Playwrights Circle.  Members include Gail and Ernie Doe,  Bill and Carolyn Klein, Chase McLaughlin, Carl and Patricia Neisser, Robert Palmer, Tom and Beth Phelps, John and Carolina Prichard, Barbara and Bill Roberts, Richard P. and Jane Taylor and Linda and Tod White.

After the Cloudlands standing ovation, First Nighters and their guests strolled outside onto Ela’s Terrace for the Cast Party, an all-white event with food by Mark’s Catering and a chocolate bar by C. Salt Gourmet. There, under glittering white lights, they gathered to congratulate the artists and thank the Honorary Producers for an unforgettable evening.

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Monday, April 16, 2012

All Work, All Plays

Though the readings performed at the 15th Annual Playwrights Festival (PPF) don’t have the sets, costumes, and lighting that SCR audiences are accustomed to, for theatre lovers, it’s one of the most anticipated weekends of the year.  Each year, this forum for new play readings gives a glimpse of what’s to come in American theatre, and helps to shape the upcoming seasons of SCR, as well as many other theatres from around the country.

Playwrights Catherine Trieschmann and Meg Miroshnik and dramaturg Abigail Gonda; playwright Steven Drukman (foreground), Brett Ryback, Adam Arkin and Matthew Arkin in rehearsal for The Prince of Atlantis; playwright and composer Adam Gwon and musical director Dennis Castellano in rehearsal for Cloudlands.

“PPF is the most exciting 48 hours in our entire season,” says Festival Director and SCR Associate Artistic Director John Glore. “Chances are good that audience members are going to see a play that will go on to be very prominent in American theatre.”

For the past 14 years, SCR has sifted through hundreds of new play submissions to glean the most promising scripts to be read at PPF. After hearing the scripts read aloud by talented professional actors, SCR will often commit to producing a play the following season—this year’s The Prince of Atlantis was read at PPF last year. But SCR isn’t the only theatre looking for the next big thing.

“When we first started PPF 14 years ago, more and more young, promising writers were drifting away from writing for theatre because they couldn’t make enough money to live on,” says Glore. “And while SCR had already established itself as a supporter of emerging artists, we can only do so much on our own.” PPF was born as a way of bringing new work to representatives from major theatres across the country, in hopes that these fledgling plays will be picked up for a full production.

 “We bring in guests from other large theatres to do a little window-shopping,” says Glore. “And we hope they do some real shopping and decide to pick up one of the plays to produce.”

Of the 99 PPF readings over the past 14 years, 85 have gone on to full-scale productions at SCR or other major theatres.

Jarrett Sleeper and Kirsten Potter in rehearsal for How the World Began; Adam Arkin, Stephanie Marick and Matthew Arkin;
Tessa Auberjonois and Nick Ullet in rehearsal for The Droll.  All photos by Scott Brinegar.

Not all the plays read at SCR are completely untested. Most years, about half of the PPF readings and productions are SCR commissions that have been in various stages of development for up to several years. One of these commissions this year is Cloudlands, a highly anticipated new musical from Octavio Solis and Adam Gwon. Solis has received several commissions from SCR in the past, and had been collaborating with Gwon on the book and lyrics for Cloudlands for about year when it was selected for a reading.

“PPF gave us our first opportunity to see how Cloudlands would play in front of an audience,” says Glore. “That feedback was vital to the play.” The musical was officially added to SCR’s 2011-2012 shortly after, and another two-week workshop in January with feedback garnered from the PPF reading helped further polish the show, which begins previews this week.

But it’s not all business at PPF. The event is punctuated with lots of good food and good times—all part of successful weekend. “You can always tell if people are enjoying themselves and the plays,” says Glore. “And they always do. It’s a festival, after all. We want it to be festive.”

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Picture is Worth a Thousand (Strange and Wonderful) Words

The Prince of Atlantis, a world premiere by Steven Drukman now playing on the Segerstrom Stage, is set in a small community outside of Boston known as Nonantum. But the actors had to do more than just adopt a sharp, East-coast accent to make their performances believable. Nonantum, one of several villages that make up the town of Newton, Massachusetts, has a distinct dialect, developed and preserved over the past several generations by its residents. 

Even though Drukman grew up in nearby Oak Hill, Nonantum's phonetic language, which has no official spellings, let alone a dictionary, is tough to grasp. So Drukman enlisted the help of Alan Flynn, whose family has lived in Nonantum for generations. Flynn took Drukman, director Warner Shook and actor Matthew Arkin on a tour of the area, introducing them to locals who utilize "Lake talk" in everyday situations—a crucial lesson, since the meaning of the language comes not just from the word itself, but also from intonation, body language, facial expressions and the social status of the speaker.

Read on for the real-life sights and sounds of Nonantum.

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Crowning Night for "The Prince of Atlantis"

When the curtain fell on First Night of The Prince of Atlantis on April 6, the audience stood and cheered—not just for the playwright, director, actors and designers but also for the play’s royal couple, Honorary Producers Yvonne and Damien Jordan.

The Jordans have been fervent supporters of The Prince of Atlantis since its staged reading at last year’s Pacific Playwrights Festival.  “We were so excited to see Steven’s beautiful work move from the PPF reading to a full-fledged production,” Yvonne said, “with excellent acting and superb staging.”

Damien was equally enthusiastic.  “We were blown away by tonight’s performance.  It delivered the emotional highs and lows that life throws our way, with the right amount of humor—all under Warner’s dedicated and detailed direction.  We couldn’t have asked for more.”

They were perfectly in sync with the First Nighters, who assembled for the Cast Party at Scott’s Restaurant and Bar, where they toasted the artists with an “ocean drop” martini, the evening’s signature cocktail.

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'Jitney' Times Two!

Jitney is in high demand! Following the run of August Wilson’s award-winning tale about cabbies in Pittsburgh in the 1970s here at SCR, the production will travel to Pasadena Playhouse, where it will run June 21-July 15, closing out their 2011-2012 season.

"I am extremely happy to enter into this collaboration with my well respected colleagues at South Coast Repertory to bring their production of this play to the stage of The Playhouse,” said Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director of The Pasadena Playhouse.  “Jitney is one of the best of the canon of plays created by a man who is surely one of the greatest American playwrights of the 20th Century.  I am honored to have August's work at our theatre once again, and I look forward to the theatrical electricity that I know this fine group of actors will bring to these great words."

“We are pleased to bring SCR’s production of Jitney to the Pasadena Playhouse and look forward to sharing this important drama with the Pasadena audience and our colleagues,” said Marc Masterson, South Coast Repertory’s Artistic Director

Jitney is the first of ten plays August Wilson wrote in his renowned “Pittsburgh Cycle” which chronicles life in his childhood neighborhood, decade by decade, over the course of the 20th century. Jitney is the seventh in the series and is the winner of the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award and the Olivier Award for Best New Play.  The story unfolds in a storefront taxi station, where a motley crew of cabbies share stories and meddle in each other’s lives.  Old cronies drop in, fights break out and lovers make up – and just as we get to know them, Wilson asks us to look again. The New York Times calls Jitney “vibrant…velvety smooth,” and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says Jitney is a “vivid mix of comedy and passion backed by a solid sociology of men struggling to survive…Wilson excels in the casual, expressive revelation of emotion under the drone of day-to-day.”

Friday, April 6, 2012

From the Big Screen to the Small Stage

John Kapelos
Joey Colletti, the hot-shot seafood importer in this month’s The Prince of Atlantis, is full of bombast and ego. But a much more humble man brings his character to life. John Kapelos has built an impressive resume playing small but iconic roles in movies such as The Breakfast Club (Carl the Janitor), Sixteen Candles (Rudy), Roxanne (Chuck) and Legally Blonde (Dewey Newcombe), as well as scores of other film and television roles. It’s a history any actor would be proud to have, but as Kapelos prepares to appear on the stage for the first time in 30 years, he readily admits that he still has a lot to learn.

“It’s good to put yourself in a position where you are always learning and challenging yourself,” he says. It’s a little uncomfortable, but it’s a good place to be.”

Matthew Arkin and John Kapelos in
The Prince of Atlantis.
Kapelos got his first taste of the stage in high school in Canada, when he served as a member of the crew on a school production, and quickly realized he wanted a place in the spotlight. Local roles followed, and he eventually found himself touring with Second City—first in Toronto and later in Chicago. After seven seasons with the renowned comedy troupe, he made the leap to film and TV, and hasn’t appeared on the stage since. Until now.

“I started craving work in the theatre,” says John, who longed for the opportunity to dig deeper into a role. “With these bit characters, there gets to be a point of diminishing returns. The stop and start of filmmaking keeps you from getting wind in your sails,” says Kapelos. “But when you perform live, you find new things in the character and the script every time.”

Reflecting on his impressive resume, Kapelos realized that his favorite projects (Roxanne, Internal Affairs) involved directors who were deeply rooted in the theatre, and who took rehearsal time seriously—a rarity in filmmaking. And when Joey Colletti and The Prince of Atlantis crossed his path, Kapelos knew it was time to take the leap.

“I really wanted this part, and I definitely went after it,” says Kapelos, who spent part of his childhood in Boston. “Joey resonates with me personally on a very profound level. I feel like I know and understand who he is.”

And now that the curtain has risen on his first stage performance in thirty years? “I wonder why I waited so long.”

Heads in the Clouds

Cloud Formation

Cloudlands is the first wholly original musical ever commissioned, developed and premiered by South Coast Repertory.  The story of its serendipitous birth began in late 2009, when SCR offered a fifth commission to Octavio Solis, one of the company’s half-dozen associate artists.  Solis’s relationship with SCR dates back to 1989, when the theatre presented his play, Man of the Flesh, as a staged reading in the Hispanic Playwrights Project.  SCR produced the world premiere of the play in its old Second Stage the following season, and a few years later commissioned Solis to write La Posada Mágica, a Latino-themed holiday show which for fifteen years served as a companion piece to our annual production of A Christmas Carol.

When Solis accepted the new commission, he mentioned that he thought he might find the story for the play in a song he had co-written as part of a workshop at New Dramatists, a playwrights’ organization in New York.  New Dramatists had paired Solis and four other playwrights with five composers, asking each writer to create a song with each of the composers.  Solis talked about the song he had written with a young composer named Adam Gwon, about a girl who discovers her mother is having an affair.  He thought that song might be the seed for a compelling story.

Adam Gwon and Octavio Solis
SCR wasn’t familiar with Gwon’s work but, after hearing the song, asked if Solis would be interested in turning his idea into a musical, with Gwon as composer and co-lyricist.  Solis enthusiastically agreed, and Gwon quickly signed on.  (While getting to know Gwon, SCR came across his musical Ordinary Days, and went on to produce it on the Argyros Stage in 2010.)

Solis and Gwon began working on the project in earnest in early 2010.  They turned in a first, rough draft of the show—with only a few of its songs in place—that summer.  Since then it has undergone four workshops and had three public presentations (script-in-hand concert readings) on its way to this world premiere production.  Such intensive (and expensive) development is not at all unusual for a musical—but unprecedented in SCR’s long experience with  play-development.

Those who may have attended the reading of Cloudlands in the 2011 Pacific Playwrights Festival—and even those who took in the more recent presentations in January 2012—may be surprised to see how much it has changed in the course of its evolution.  Whole songs have been eliminated (ironically, the song that gave birth to the musical is no longer in the show), new songs were added, major plot points changed—and one character has undergone a complete transformation since last year.  In the process the show has become leaner and has sacrificed some humor in favor of emotional depth.  Like its protagonist, Cloudlands has been on a journey to find itself, and now SCR audiences will be the first in the nation to greet it as it nears the end of that journey.
We meet Monica, the troubled young protagonist of the new musical, Cloudlands, in a moment of repose.  She lies on the grass in Dolores Park—in San Francisco’s Mission District—waiting for her boyfriend, Kevin, and studying the clouds.  But Monica is far from relaxed—in fact, she has been in a state of emotional turmoil for a long time and, as she tells us in her opening song, what she sees in those clouds is a reflection of the shifting, roiling uncertainty in her world.  When he arrives, Kevin lovingly refers to Monica as “Gloomy Girl,” as he talks to her about her struggle to find herself, to figure out where she belongs, to finally feel as though she’s on solid ground.

Addi McDaniel as Monica.
But if Monica’s life has been unsettled before now, it becomes much more so when, just after Kevin has left her by herself again, she witnesses something totally unexpected:  she sees her mother walking through the Mission District to an assignation with a man Monica has never seen before.  As her mother, Caroline, goes into the Hotel Marquis with the mystery man, Monica sings of feeling her world “Explode.”

She finds her way home, where her father, Gerald, is just putting the finishing touches on a salad.  Caroline rushes in, apologizing for her lateness, and the three sit down to dinner, a scene of domestic normality that belies the family’s deep discomposure. 

Quite apart from their marital troubles, Gerald and Caroline are greatly concerned about Monica and her obvious emotional instability.  They have made a pact to overcome their own issues in order to give Monica the foundation she needs … but it doesn’t come easily.

For her part, Monica decides she must to get to the bottom of the secrets and lies that seem to be undermining her family’s life.  She sets out to meet her mother’s lover, following him from the Hotel Marquis to a shop called “Carto Antiquario,” filled with old maps.  She introduces herself to the man and learns that his name is Victor Castillo.  When he confronts her about why she has been following him, she tells him she needs a job for the summer and would like to work in his shop.  Taken with the girl, Victor agrees to let her work for him for a few hours a week.

And so begins an unraveling.  When Monica pulls on the loose thread that is her mother’s secret relationship, she inadvertently undoes the fabric of all five characters’ lives, and none of them will ever be the same by story’s end.

Fellow Travelers through Cloudlands

Director Amanda Dehnert, a veteran when it comes to musicals both new and old (and author-composer of her own musical projects), joined the Cloudlands team last fall and shepherded the piece through its two public presentations in January.  Most of the cast she assembled for that two-week process returns for the full production.  With one exception the entire cast is new to SCR.

THE CAST; Katrina Lenk, Addi McDaniel, Joseph Melendez,
Adam Kaokept and Robert Mammana.

Addi McDaniel is on leave from the long-running New York production of The Fantasticks to take on the role of Monica in Cloudlands.  Belying her youthful appearance (which renders her entirely convincing as the 18-year-old Monica), she has performed leading roles at some of the finest theatres in the nation, including Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

Both Adam Kaokept (Kevin) and Joseph Melendez (Victor) count appearances in Jesus Christ Superstar among their many credits.  Kaokept has also appeared in national tours of Mamma Mia!, Flower Drum Song and Bye Bye Birdie, while Melendez, who began his career as a rock singer, has credits that range from Shakespeare to Hair.

Robert Mammana, who makes his SCR debut as Monica’s father, Gerald, has appeared in both the Broadway and national touring productions of Les Misérables, and in numerous plays and musicals at theatres across the nation.

The one cast-member not new to SCR is Katrina Lenk (Caroline), who appeared earlier this year in Elemeno Pea, on the Segerstrom Stage.  SCR audiences had a limited opportunity to hear her sing in the 2006 production of Caucasian Chalk Circle, but those who ventured north to Los Angeles in 2008 to catch Lovelace: A Rock Opera, got to hear Lenk’s singing voice at full throttle in her award-winning performance as Linda Lovelace.

Dennis Castellano, musical director for Cloudlands, has served in that capacity for most of the musicals staged at SCR since Sunday in the Park with George in 1989.  He has assembled an orchestra of five musicians who will play arrangements of Gwon’s music created by the renowned orchestrator Bruce Coughlin (who won a Tony Award for his orchestrations of the music for A Light in the Piazza, among his many Broadway credits).

It’s an exceptional assemblage of talent for an exceptional SCR world premiere.