Three hundred pounds of sassy female flesh is enough to steal any show. Which is why the new The Mamas and the Papas musical Dream a Little Dream should actually be called Life with Mama Cass. The tribute to the four folk rockers opened last month at the Village Theater, in a cabaret-style performance space that formerly housed the dance club Life and previously hosted the Janis Joplin musical. The show stars real-life "Papa" Denny Doherty, who helped write the script and serves as the narrator-guide for the psychedelic musical montage that trips through the rise and fall of his group.
On the most simple level, Dream a Little Dream is pure entertainment. It boasts a five-piece band and three other performers taking on the roles of "Mama" Cass Elliot, John Phillips and Michelle Phillips. (Incidentally, Angela Gaylor, the actress playing Michelle, bears a creepy, almost-too-real resemblance to Ms. Phillips.) The setting is a simple corner stage and a back wall lit up with photo projections that coincide with the story Mr. Doherty relates, much of it about his friendship with Mama Cass. The recollection of past events is done in a VH1 Behind the Music sort of way, sans guest appearances by real people digging up the dirt. Mr. Doherty does that himself.
The story begins with young Denny starting off his music career as part of a three-piece rock band from Canada called the Hepsters, later to become the Halifax Three. From there, we’re taken to the folk clubs of Greenwich Village and eventually end up in hippie Los Angeles—with all the drugs in between. The band runs through 19 songs of the era, including the hits "California Dreamin’," "Dedicated to the One I Love," "I Saw Her Again Last Night" and "Monday Monday." Despite the absence of the original vocal melodies that made the originals so distinctive, Denny and his crew manage to bellow out renditions that make audience members tap and clap. Think "Mamma Mia" but less grand and less gay.
For those unfamiliar with the history of the Mamas and the Papas, this show is a pretty good summary, as told from the perspective of Mr. Doherty. You get everything and maybe even some things they don’t say on tv. The internal conflicts that eventually caused the group to collapse are hung out for everyone to see. The story goes like this:
John and Michelle were a married couple, but Denny really liked Michelle. Denny and Michelle fooled around some, but Michelle could never make up her mind whom she loved more. And then of course you had Mama Cass, pining away after Denny and throwing her weight around, finally dying of a broken heart in London in 1974. Then there’s some stuff about the evil Dunhill Records, and how all four band members were cheated out of their royalties. All it took was a smoke screen made up of fancy clothes, nice cars, lots of booze and drugs.
Which leads to the question that should be on everybody’s minds: What the heck is Mr. Doherty doing in this show? Not that he’s a has-been, but, well, he’s a has-been. I like the whole touch of reality the performance brings by having an actual "Papa" in it—the other Papa died in 2001, and the surviving Mama is old, bitchy and bitter—but let’s be Creeque Alley about this. It’s Denny workin’ for a penny. Maybe I’m the only one with the peculiar aftertaste of irony in my mouth, but isn’t it interesting that Mr. Doherty would end up back here in New York, on the same streets he once haunted more than thirty years ago, trying to hock his music and make a living?
I love the Mamas and the Papas and everything they stood for in that era of love, drugs and unprotected, promiscuous sex. But when you start coming down from the happy high of the musical, you might have some questions. One concerns the emotion that Mr. Doherty displays on stage. Sure, the whole story is touchy for him, and solemnity is necessary when you talk about the demise of your California dream, but I question the sincerity of those near-tears he experiences in the end when Mama Cass dies. When you do it once or twice, it’s sadness. When you do it on a daily basis and people pay to watch, well, that’s called acting. And in this situation, it’s just plain sad. I suggest Mr. Doherty take a seat and let someone else reprise his role. That way, pity isn’t mixed in with my good time.
That said, Dream a Little Dream is a fun time. The Mamas and the Papas’ ties with Manhattan’s swingin’-60s scene makes the show well worth the $45 for rear orchestra tickets, or $80, if you want a VIP table with bar service. Just make sure you don’t order the ham sandwich—I hear it’s a killer.
Dream a Little Dream
Weds.-Sat. & Mon. at 8, mats. Sat. at 2:30, Sun. at 3, at Village Theater, 158 Bleecker St. (betw. Sullivan & Thompson Sts.), 212-307-4100.