“Cloudlands” is the latest entry in the curiously expanding genre of mental-illness tuners, of which “Next to Normal,” “Grey Gardens” and “Spring Awakening” are reigning champs. Passion is provided by Adam Gwon’s supple melodies in Bruce Coughlin’s spare but hard-driving orchestrations. But “Cloudlands” aspires to near-Greek tragic dimensions, a bad fit with librettist Octavio Solis’ superficial, illogical storytelling and helmer Amanda Dehnert’s terminally tame South Coast Rep premiere production.
Eighteen-year-old Monica (Addi McDaniel), just recovering from a suicide attempt, soliloquizes she’s about to “explo-o-o-ode” in a ripple of pearl-shaped notes more like yodeling than exploding. It’s no time for pretty singing, and McDaniel comes across as a likable ingenue who either is incapable of registering any hint of instability or sexuality, or has been forbidden to do so. Through a series of carnal adventures and harrowing twists, Monica remains as bland and affectless as Annette Funicello.
To document a life she feels is “vanishing,” she mounts cloud photos in an album others need only open to gasp “Ohmigod, you’re an artist!” Could such snapshots reveal so much without any commentary? But we must take the album on faith as evidence of Monica’s depth of soul, as no help is gained from glib soliloquies with superfluous lyrics like “Lying here/In your bed” when the singer is plainly lying in bed.
This mature young woman’s distress, we learn with some incredulity, was triggered by her parents’ (Robert Mammana and Katrina Lenk) bickering all the time. “She sees through our marriage,” complains Dad, who cancels his business trips to don an apron and whip up pot pies to keep the family together, but in vain. “I’ve had it with these shitty family dinners!” Monica avers.
Mammana and Lenk have generated heat in other roles, but they can’t build a fire with the damp kindling they’re handed here. So intent is “Cloudlands” on rushing to its plot turns, it fumbles the necessary buildup. We can’t appreciate a vanishing life if we can’t believe in the reality that preceded the vanishing.
A mysterious Latin stranger (Joseph Melendez) mopes and smolders on the sidelines, while Monica’s boyfriend Kevin (Adam Kaokept) tosses around “text,” “hella” and “babe” so we get he’s a typical teen.
A stringent exploration of psychology and motivation seems to have been lacking in what is cited as two years of development, although all that time spent at music stands during staged readings might account for why Dehnert has the cast so often upright and immobile. Such extravagant professions of anguish as permeate “Cloudlands” certainly warrant more in the way of physical expressiveness than they receive.