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'Cloudlands': Singing — and tragedy

The light (Adam Gwon) and dark (Octavio Solis) mesh in the duo's unusual musical, which the public will see for the first time in a reading at South Coast Repertory.

May 01, 2011|By Karen Wada, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Playwright Octavio Solis (wearing the hat) and composer Adam Gwon in a rehearsal room at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif.
Playwright Octavio Solis (wearing the hat) and composer Adam Gwon in a rehearsal… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

Octavio Solis and Adam Gwon met six years ago in a New York workshop on musical theater, where they were assigned to write a song together.

Solis, a Texas-born Mexican American playwright in his early 50s, and Gwon, a Chinese-American Jewish composer and lyricist in his early 30s, hit it off and decided to turn that song into a show.

"Cloudlands," the chamber musical that resulted, will receive its first public reading Sunday at South Coast Repertory's 14th annual Pacific Playwrights Festival. It tells the story of a San Francisco teenager who discovers that her mother is having an affair and decides to follow her mother's lover, ensnaring herself and her family in a tangle of dangerous secrets.

"The story ultimately has a lot of sadness in it but a lot of humor as well," says John Glore, SCR's associate artistic director. "It explores the mysteries of the human heart and the ways that desire can lead to transgressions of various kinds."

"It's a tragedy in the classical form," says Solis. "This is the kind of thing you don't usually see in a musical."

That idea suits Solis, Gwon and South Coast just fine.

Solis, after all, loves to do the unexpected. In a career that has spanned more than two decades, the San Francisco-based writer has blended the visceral and the magical, the emotional and the intellectual in plays about Latinos — and not about Latinos — that have been produced around the country. Among his best-known works is "Lydia," about a mysterious maid who cares for a dysfunctional family and its brain-damaged daughter.

For Gwon, "Cloudlands"' bleak edges give him a chance to escape from being typecast by "Ordinary Days," his intimate musical depicting the angst and adventures of four young Manhattanites. It has been produced as part of the Roundabout Theatre Company's Underground series in New York and at stages including SCR.

South Coast, which presents few musicals, favors ones that "are not typical Broadway fare," says Glore. "We want shows that have the same values we hew to in our straight plays: high literary content, a strong sense of theatricality and serious themes engaged in interesting ways."

SCR commissioned "Cloudlands" using an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation musical-theater grant that also has spawned an adaptation of Bridget Carpenter's "Fall" by Carpenter and singer-songwriter Nellie McKay and a joint venture between Culture Clash and singer-composer-violinist Gingger Shankar. Glore says the creative combustion generated by these combinations of projects and artists results from mixing talent old and new to South Coast.

Solis has a long history with the Costa Mesa theater, having been a veteran of the Hispanic Playwrights Project, which began in the mid-1980s. SCR presented his "Man of the Flesh," an adaptation of the Don Juan story, in 1990, and "La Posada Magica," with music by Marcos Loya, was a holiday tradition at the theater for 15 years. "Octavio is a poet with a lush, saturated quality of language," says Glore. "His work can be very dark, so dark I've wondered where it comes from, because he is such a sunny person."

A number of Solis' pieces — including "La Posada" — have incorporated music, but he had never written what he calls "a real musical." To learn more about the genre, he attended the 2005 New Dramatists Composer-Librettist Studio, held in New York in cooperation with the St. Paul, Minn.-based Nautilus Music-Theater.

At the workshop, he and Gwon were assigned to create a song inspired by a musical theme. After listening to Gwon's composition, Solis says, he envisioned "a girl following and spying on her mother." He says he gave his lyrics to Gwon, who "turned them into a full-fledged song.... I knew there was a story there, a dark and poignant story."

A few years later, when South Coast Repertory approached Solis about a play commission, he told Glore about that story and his desire to collaborate with Gwon, an artist then unknown to SCR.

Glore went to New York to meet the composer, whom he describes as being "part of a generation influenced by people like Michael John LaChiusa and Jason Robert Brown." He came home with the idea of presenting "Ordinary Days," which ran at South Coast in 2010.

Meanwhile, Solis began expanding the workshop song into the story of "Cloudlands" (which is named for the teenage girl's fascination with clouds). Or, rather, he tried to let the story expand on its own. "I don't like to have everything fleshed out before I write it, because then I lose interest in it," he says. "I let the characters guide me."

He started with the character of Monica, her mother and her mother's lover. Then he added Monica's father, in part because "I'm interested in father-daughter relationships, because I have a daughter and we're going through a lot of big changes as she matures." Last came Monica's friend Kevin Chu, who is Asian and gay and part of "the diversity of San Francisco," says Solis. (The other characters represent other cultures.)

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