On Theater: SCR floating on Solis's 'Cloudlands'

Who would have thought to add a musical score to a seething drama of sexual tension with more circuitous plot lines than your basic soap opera?

Octavio Solis did, and South Coast Repertory's "Cloudlands" is the beneficiary of this fortuitous decision in its powerful and captivating world premiere on the Julianne Argyros Stage. It's given a production of throat-catching immediacy by director Amanda Dehnert.

"Cloudlands" is unlike anything yet seen at SCR – a tangled web of familial tension exacerbated by a pair of outside forces. The musical score – by Solis (lyrics) and Adam Gwon (music and lyrics) – underscores the anxiety of the characters, particularly that of the central figure, an 18-year-old girl trying to thwart her mother's affair and mend her parents' damaged relationship.

Young Monica (Addi McDaniel) breaks off a three-year romance with the fawning Kevin (Adam Kaokept) to stalk her mother Caroline (Katrina Lenk) and track down the usurper of Mom's affections — Victor (Joseph Melendez), a map store operator of Mexican and Salvadoran parentage who's in the country illegally. Meanwhile, Dad (Robert Mammana) stews and frets over the prospect of a broken marriage.

That they frequently find time to break into song only underscores their level of heartache. The music blends smoothly with their character development instead of putting the story on temporary hold, as many musicals are prone to do. Many times the voices (all splendid) are raised in song as examples of inner torment rather than one character conveying his or her emotions to another.

McDaniel is riveting as the teen-age daughter on the cusp of womanhood who stalks her mother to locate the lover, then takes a job in his map shop to further uncover his character. Her rampant anxiety may be slightly overcooked, but for her the stakes are inordinately high, and she conveys her concern wholeheartedly.

As her wayward mother, Lenk (so brilliant in SCR's recent "Elemeno Pea") succeeds in damping down her emotions to placate her family while throwing caution to the winds when connecting with Victor. The realism of her portrayal is mesmerizing.

Melendez brings the soul of a downtrodden dreamer to the role of Victor, a man flayed by societal forces but determined to make a life in his beloved United States. There is wit and wisdom in his powerful interpretation,

As the true victim in this scenario, Mammana strives to set things right, unaware of the full extent of his mission. He, like the boyish Kaokept, another fine depiction, are left with the byproducts of the torment going on all around them.

The drama is played out on a stark, white, multi-level setting designed by Christopher Acebo. The stage picture is greatly embellished by Alex Jaeger's costumes and Lap Chi Chu's lighting design.

Veteran Orange County musician Dennis Castellano conducts a five-piece orchestra behind the set (but occasionally revealed) in which most members play more than one instrument. The impact is pervasive, if largely unseen.

"Cloudlands" might succeed on its own as straight drama – with more twists and turns than an Alfred Hitchcock movie, including a shocking climax – but blending in a musical background enriches the story immensely. It's a proud world premiere moment at South Coast Repertory.

TOM TITUS covers local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go:

What: "Cloudlands"

Where: South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Ave., Costa Mesa

When: at 7:45 Tuesday through Friday, and at 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Cost: $20 to $68

Call: (714) 708-5555 or visit http://www.scr.org.

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