Regional/Los Angeles Theater Review: CLOUDLANDS (South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on April 23, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

EXPOSITION, THE MUSICAL

SPOILER ALERT in this first paragraph! There are attempts at surprising plot twists in Octavio Solis’ and Adam Gwon’s new musical drama Cloudlands, but this new piece, commissioned by South Coast Repertory, takes itself so seriously, struggling, grasping for some sort of esoteric significance that it never rises above its soap-operatic plot. After a suicide attempt, a young woman sees her sex-addicted mother with another man; she stalks the guy and falls in love with him as she tries to break up his love affair with her mother; sleeps with him; then learns he is her biological father—unbeknownst to him—which further exposes the sham of her mother’s marriage to her alcoholic now-non-father. So she tries suicide again and succeeds. The creative team seems to think each turn of the plot is a shock. It isn’t. You can figure it out in the first fifteen minutes if you’re paying attention.

Review of Cloudlands Los Angeles Theater by Samuel BernsteinIt’s the kind of story that is told over and over again on Lifetime. Twenty years ago, when the genre was blossoming, the young woman would have been played by Tori Spelling, famous among other things for the Lifetime camp classic Mother May I Sleep with Danger, with Melissa Gilbert as her mother, and Antonio Sabato, Jr. as the lover.

This kind of material certainly can be elevated. The 1992 Louis Malle film Damage is an example. Jeremy Irons, Juliette Binoche, and Miranda Richardson were mesmerizing, and its lurid story (a father sleeps with his son’s fiancé, the son catches them, and dies while running away) felt like grand opera with no soap bubbles in sight. And there’s always Jean Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles if you’re looking for familial Grand Guignol.

Review of Cloudlands Los Angeles Theater by Samuel BernsteinCloudlands does not elevate the storyline. It sinks it. The whole piece feels like a travelogue; the characters comment on their feelings, endlessly describing their unpleasant emotional experiences, yammering on and on about what they feel without ever making us feel anything. The young woman (Addi McDaniel) is so busy telling us that she is going to explode (she even has an entire song about it) that we feel nothing. When characters are this self-aware, there’s nothing for us to discover (hence the ease in which we see what is coming).

When she meets her mother’s Latin lover (Joseph Melendez) we never see a spark between them, yet she sings, “His hand in mine, I feel the flesh my mother felt, for the first time, I want to hate him…” Show us that. Give us action and behavior that makes us feel what the character is supposed to feel rather than telling it to us. “It’s painful to be home,” she says, “It’s like my house is covered in scars.” Prove it. Show us the scars.

Review of Cloudlands Los Angeles Theater by Samuel BernsteinThe songs are numbingly similar melodically, mostly through-sung, awkward in their attempts at recitative, and self-conscious in their attempts at lyrics relevant to contemporary life. Singing words such as “dude,” “fuck,” and “dumb-ass” isn’t just clunky; it’s trying too hard.

Amanda Dehnert directs with no discernible flair for movement. Songs are performed statically, often directly to the audience, without any sense of fluidity. No one expects tap dancing or ballet with this material, just a sense of progression, of something happening visually that mirrors the emotions the characters never stop singing about.

Review of Cloudlands Los Angeles Theater by Samuel BernsteinThe talented cast is marooned: Addi McDonald is a little too earnest as the young woman, but she sings sweetly, and is obviously gifted; Katrina Link is all dark glasses and Jackie O style as the mother, and you get the sense that she really could sizzle in better material; Melendez has the requisite Latin hotness, but he is also an actor of real presence, with a smooth, mellow voice, and a graceful lilt when he speaks Spanish. I could easily see the three of them knocking this story out of the park—if they only had dialogue, songs, and staging that made us care.

Review of Cloudlands Los Angeles Theater by Samuel BernsteinThere is a curious assumption underlying the narrative premise: Keeping the secret of the main character’s parentage is apparently necessary because no one will accept the romance of a white girl and a Latino. Yet this pregnancy would have taken place in 1994! By that time, “mixed” marriages in the U.S. were already so accepted that the marriage of our most conservative Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, to a white woman, aroused no public comment, let alone censure. Certainly there are some people, in some places, who freak out about racial cross-pollination, but Cloudlands acts as if our entire culture was (and is) unaccepting. It’s just bizarre.

South Coast Repertory is an important regional theater. They have nurtured many great shows through an extensive development process. Cloudlands was a risky venture, and SCR should be commended for taking on projects from new writers, but this musical needs to go back to the drawing board.

photos by Ben Horak

Cloudlands
South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa (Regional Theater)
through May 6
for tickets, call (714) 708-5555 or visit http://www.scr.org

{ 3 comments }

Jerry Stern April 29, 2012 at 10:22 pm

We just got home from seeng this fantastic performance. It was nothing short of supurb. Mr. Bernstein got this one all wrong.

B April 30, 2012 at 8:56 am

Being new to theater-going, I left SCR very confused; Cloudlands is supposed to be a good play but, to my mind, it was a hot mess. What are they trying to say? Why should I care? How many plays did I just watch? Narcisstic, sex addicted mom (relived you caught that also) + beaten down dad = nonparented emotionally fragile teen, or a treatise on unfair immigration laws. Thank you, thank you, thank you. My brain has stopped hurting.

JimmyD April 30, 2012 at 4:33 pm

Mr. Bernstein should read the LA Times review to feel better about his opinions on this piece. For the rest of the audience like my wife and I, who attempted to supress our snickers and giggles after the great reveal, this review reassures us that a great venue and reputation does not always equal a great production. As my wife put it so well: did an 18-year old girl write this piece? It is riddled with cliches and a pleasant but unremarkable score. The attempts to emulate a tragedy of Greek proportions are telegraphed to the audience so that the ending is expected well before the protagonist understands what is happening. This was our first SCR production and I was amazed that a piece as contrived and pedestrian somehow made it to a showcase venue like this one. I agree with the reviewer that this one needed to go back to the drawing board.

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