I’m not a fan of the jukebox/tribute musicals, but working with the Magnormos team, writer Peter Fitzpatrick has taken all that he knows about great musicals (he’s directed five Sondheims) to create one that is loving, painful and wonderful.
I’m a product of the 60s, and have always loved The Mamas and Papas’ music with those close harmonies that speak of love, but are underpinned with a melancholy that draws you deeply into the heart and truth of the song.
Their music is still glorious, but Flowerchildren reminds us that it was a product of many no-so-nice stories. Older John married teenage Michelle, Cass never got over her brief relationship with Denny, John never accepted Cass for her size, each had health-threatening addictions and Denny and Michelle has an affair. Underpinning their fame and sudden money, it was unhappiness, anger and drugs, that led Phillips to write some of their greatest hits.
The story is told in four parts, each narrated from point of view of one of the members, starting with Cass when she decided in join the group and ending with Michelle, who’s the only member still alive. It also leaves their stories in the 60s and leaves Michelle to tell what she wants to about their deaths. Some of the urban myths are debunked and other more damaging accusations, particularly about John, are left for Oprah and the tabloids.
Flowerchildren succeeds where so many tribute pieces fail because the narrative is inseparable from the music and it uses the truth of their personal relationships. Phillips freely used his music to express his how he felt. In the early days, his “Words of Love” were for Michelle, “Creeque Alley’s” “no one’s getting fat except Mama Cass” still feels mean and the pain of Denny’s “genius” mistake in “I saw her again” was recreated every performance to ensure that Denny remembered just how much he hurt John.
Working with the spot-on design (Christina Longan-Bell and Emma Kennedy), Aaron Joyner’s direction captures the mood of the flower power, hippy movement of the late 60s. It was a time of hope and new beginnings, but he doesn’t let us see it with mass-produced fashion-conscious rose-coloured glasses.
Sophie Thomas’s musical direction captures the unique sound of this group so well that it feels so close to seeing them live that it’s easy to forget that we’re not in San Francisco in 1967, and their recorded eight-part harmonies are re-created by using a mirror ensemble of four (Tim Carney, Jessica Featherby, Jack Feehan, Zuleika Khan).
And the cast couldn’t be more perfect. Laura Fitzpatrick (Mama Michelle) brings the complexity that is so often missed in discussions of pretty Michelle, Matt Hetherington (Papa John) isn’t scared of John’s demons, Dan Humphris (Papa Denny) isn’t scared of Denny’s cowardice and Casey Donavan (Mama Cass) shows how Cass hid her pain, and masters Cass’s dance style.
Flowerchildren will get another season. It’s so good that it has to be seen more and must find it’s way to the homeland of this group.