If you think getting and keeping a band of artists together is tough, you should try putting on a musical. The Mamas and the Papas performed and recorded together for only three years from 1965 to 1968. I wish the producers of this homespun delight at least that long at the top of the charts.
Flowerchildren is what they refer to these days as a jukebox musical, but the description here feels churlish. The term suggests a cobbling together, a slotting in of scenes that pad out the moments between the famous hits, and this show is anything but. Sure, it has the hits. 'California Dreamin’', 'Monday Monday', 'Dedicated to the One I Love', and the list really does go on. But they are so effortlessly melded into the drama, which in turn illuminates the meaning of the songs, that the effect is nothing short of revelatory.
The play is concerned principally with the fractious interpersonal relationships that threaten to rip apart a collaborative musical endeavour. In other words, who is screwing whom. Pretty blonde Michelle (Laura Fitzpatrick) is the catalyst for most of the tension, married to John (Matt Hetherington) but having an affair with Denny (Dan Humphris). To complicate matters, Mama Cass (Casey Donovan) has her own past relationship with Denny and is still very much in love. That they manage to remain in the same room together is a miracle, let alone perform such magnificent harmonies.
Peter Fitzpatrick, the playwright, has kept the focus of the piece surprisingly narrow, concentrating all his efforts on the four members of the band. The danger here is in allowing the action to become claustrophobic, and the concerns to slide toward the quotidian. There are marital squabbles and mundane bitch-fests, arguments about fidelity. But then they sing, and harmony springs from disharmony. Jealousy, anger and spite get transformed into music that is beautiful and joyous. Act 1 ends in a rendition of 'Dedicated to the One I Love' that is spine-tingling in its emotional honesty.
Each member of the band gets a turn in narrating the action, which is more a structural than a thematic decision. Denny’s narration in particular seems superfluous. But it’s a small quibble in what is a notably compassionate script. No one is treated unfairly in this play, not even Mama Jill (Jessica Featherby), who is brought in as a replacement for Michelle when the men decide to sideline their muse and siren. Featherby is hilarious as the overly enthusiastic Jill, creating comic wonders with a tambourine and a fatal lack of tact.
But the real stars of the evening are the four leads. Hetherington has superb range as the troubled creative genius John Phillips, noble in his shame, crushed and railing in equal measure. His rendition of San Francisco is heartbreaking, and the performance faultless. Humphris plays the alcoholic Denny as an adorable man-child next door, and has a tenor of angelic clarity.
The program notes describe Michelle Phillips as looking good and singing reasonably well, with no great talent musical or otherwise. In this single regard Laura Fitzpatrick could be said to have failed utterly. She is magnificent, not only in voice but in the imperceptible shift from ice princess to soulful matriarch. Her final monologue is a study in restraint.
Finally, there is Casey Donovan as Mama Cass. Some roles seem preordained. Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles comes to mind. Now I will think of Mama Cass and Casey Donovan in the same way. Her rendition of 'Dream a Little Dream of Me' brings down the house, but by then it hardly even matters. She won us over hours before, in turns sad and diminished, witty and sly, brazen and brassy. And when she sings, when they all sing together, one could be forgiven for thinking the Mamas and the Papas had risen from the dead and reformed one last time.
This is a very specific play about a distinctly American group, told through that most American medium, the musical, and yet it’s entirely Australian from concept to production. There is something uncanny about that mix that deserves further analysis. Needless to say, everyone in Melbourne should go out and see it, before it becomes totally American and takes over the world.