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LETTERS TO EDITOR
Dream A Little Dream
by Les Gutman
A third of a century has passed since then, Mama Cass and Papa John are no longer with us, and it's time to reflect on the phenomenon which left a footprint far larger than its history might suggest. Papa Denny has now returned from the cold of his native Canada to the same Bleecker Street from which he and his band mates arose, having survived it all (the adverb "remarkably" being pretty much obligatory). In Dream a Little Dream, he chronicles the group's story punctuated, as is also essential, by song.
Mr. Doherty could be forgiven if his recollection is a bit hazy (we are reminded of Grace Slick's quip, "If you remember the Sixties, you weren't there"), but it doesn't show. (Denny warns: "Some of what I'm going to tell you tonight didn't happen - at least not in the nice, semi-coherent way that I'm going to tell it.") Most of the details are well known, however, and easily recalled with the little refresher course Denny provides. The songs quickly remind us why we care. He promises to tell all, and does, though the scandals, too, have been widely reported.
There is nonetheless a revelation of a secret. Behind The Mamas and The Papas, there was a fifth voice -- Doherty calls it an overtone -- "Harvey," that could only be heard when the other four sang together. Harvey precipitates a moment of utterly compelling theater as we see the birth of the group's signature sound. Doherty's exhilaration is palpable as he describes Cass singing along with John, Michelle and him while she ironed. That's when Harvey made his entrance. "It wasn't folk music anymore, man. At long last it was really and truly rock and roll!"
All of Doherty's stories are not quite so compelling, and at almost two and a half hours, some judicious editing would have been welcome. Director Randal Myler, who has made a career of late directing bio-musicals (links to his others can be found below), has a two-edged sword in Doherty. On the one hand, Papa Denny is the genuine article, half a lifetime older and far wiser but retaining strong stage appeal. He may not quite have the young tenor sound that was so hard to resist anymore, but he holds his own with the younger performers assembled, all quite good even if they can't combine to conjure up Harvey. On the other, he occasionally suffers from the autobiographer's greatest liability -- being unable to separate himself from the material sufficiently to distinguish between what makes for an effective story and what he feels must be told. Apparently, neither Mr. Myler nor Doherty's co-writer, Paul Ledoux, were able to wrestle the wheat free from the chaff either.
Myler employs much the same formula that he used in Love, Janis, the last tenant in this venue. Instead of letters, we have recollections, which Doherty serves up with just the right blend of self-reverence and self-irony. And Myler seems to sense that what we really want is to hear the songs, and they are delivered aplenty -- nineteen in all. The show, not surprisingly, is at its best when the songs we know so well seem to rise out of his storytelling. Doherty keeps his distance -- singing along rather than with the others.
On a stage largely filled with a band (which is very good), set designer Walt Spangler has provided little beyond a few stools on which Doherty sometimes perches, and some floor mikes at which his Mama and Papa surrogates sing. (They are known here as The Dream Band). The rest of the design is supplied by Jan Hartley's extensive projections and Brian Nason's lighting which varies, according to the mood, from stark to colorful, the latter well attuned to the glowing hues of the flower children and their hallucinogenic visions. (The Sixties motif extends into the audience, the house lights consisting of très sixties lanterns.) David Woolard's costumes for the band hit the mark. Surprisingly, the show's only design deficiency is in its sound, which sometimes muffles Mr. Doherty while leaving the other singers sounding tinny. Hopefully, this will shake itself out.
I don't know how Dream a Little Dream would sit with those who were stumbling up and down Bleecker forty years ago, but for everyone else it limns the period quite well, whether it's resurrecting nostalgia or creating it anew.
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At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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