Friday, April 6, 2012

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.

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