Magnormos’s 2011 premiere of Flowerchildren: The Mamas and Papas Story sold out at Theatre Works, got rave reviews (here’s mine) and made it onto favourite and award’s lists. It’s since been developed and has opened its first professional season at The Comedy Theatre. If it doesn’t sell out, get rave reviews and awards, there’s something wrong with the system because it’s as close to perfect as music theatre can be.
The story spans 1965 to 68, the years that The Mamas and The Papas, an American folk rock quartet, recorded and performed as a group, sold millions of records and ensured their place in music history. The music, mostly written by John Phillips, is still as memorable today and epitomises the sound of hippy California.
But it wasn’t all flowers and free love. Peter Fitzpatrick wrote the (immaculately researched) book and has been working with Aaron Joyner (director, producer and musical arranger; and founder of Magnormos) since 2009 to develop the work. With its four narrators, it focuses behind the hits and public adoration, and the genius moment is making the storytelling about the songs; leaving it hard to ever hear some of them again without feeling the love, pain or bitterness that created them.
Joyner’s arrangements weave the music around the narrative, letting it be heard as more than a final product, but the highlights are the recreations of their recorded sound. Music director Sophie Thomas creates a live sound that’s got be as amazing as sitting on a bean bag with a huge pair of stereo headphones and a special cookie while listening to them for the first time. Their studio recordings with eight-part harmonies are created with four more singers who sing as ensemble characters and from backstage. I think they were more visible in the original version and I missed seeing how the four created a live eight-person sound.
It’s naturally a much bigger show, with a new design and extra ensemble, but it hasn’t lost any of its intimacy. So much that it feels like it’s still finding out how to fill so much space – which they needn’t worry about because the sound and the stories are huge and the cast make the group so real that it feels weird watching the real Mamas and Papas on YouTube.
Casey Donovan (Cass), Laura Fitzpatrick (Michelle), Matt Hetherington (John) and Dan Humphris (Denny) tell the four individual stories and the group’s story like it’s theirs. What makes this production so much more than a bio-show is performances that embrace all the atrocious behaviour, addiction and ability to hurt each other without losing any of their character’s heart. They let us see that everyone believed that they were doing the best thing, even if it was obvious to everyone else that it wasn’t.
And they can sing. Wow, can they sing. While they sound like the group, each brings enough of themselves to make it sound fresh. And, although it feels wrong to single out anyone in such a consistently sensational ensemble, gorgeous Casey Donovan makes sure that Cass Elliot hears and shares Casey’s cheer for “Dream a Little Dream of Me”.
If you don’t know the music of The Mamas and The Papas, you will be in love with it before the interval. If you’ve loved them for years, discovering their story can hurt, but nothing takes away from that music. And it might be best to not google too hard to learn about composer John Phillips. He was a far from perfect man, but he created music that’s outlived him and will take a long time to fade.
It’s kind of odd that a small independent music theatre company from Melbourne has created such a perfect telling of such an American group, but it’s one that’s going to travel far from Melbourne. (Is somebody flying Michelle Phillips out to see it?) And if we can create such stunning music theatre in Australia, why can’t some of the money that goes to re-creating American productions be spent on developing more work like this?
I’m also aware that this is a pricey ticket show and that there doesn’t seem to be any concession priced tickets. Hopefully there will be deals and offers, because it would be more than a shame if people who have supported Magnormos in the past can’t afford to see this and take everyone they know.