It was a long, hard climb to the top and a quick slide to the bottom for the Mamas and the Papas, according to this slick and revealing but rather joyless new entry in the burgeoning “VH1 musical” genre.
Concentrating on the personal clashes hidden behind the shimmering harmonies of the group’s parade of folk-rock hits, the show, co-written and narrated by original Papa Denny Doherty, is strictly for boomers who’ve been there — or at least bought the album and T-shirt. The songs, woven around Doherty’s tell-all narration, are appealingly interpreted by Doherty and a trio of young Mama and Papa sound- and look-alikes. Those simultaneously catchy and laid-back choruses remain mighty beguiling. Still, the evening may not have much appeal for audiences without a strong interest in the group.
Doherty’s presence lends the enterprise a natural authenticity lacking in similar shows such as the Janis Joplin musical “Love, Janis,” the previous tenant at the Village Theater (formerly the Village Gate), which was also directed by Randal Myler. Doherty is a friendly, appealing presence onstage as he describes, with a peculiar mixture of chagrin and nostalgia, the group’s long gestation and its convoluted dissolution in a heady whirlpool of sexual jealousy and drug-taking.
He begins with his personal history, describing his odyssey from Nova Scotia (of all places) to 1960s New York, where the sound of folksingers strumming guitars emanated from every other doorway in Greenwich Village. There he met Cass Elliot — nee Ellen Naomi Cohen — over a bottle of Jack Daniels, and, later, John Phillips and his dewy, 17-year-old wife Michelle while on a tour of the South with a slew of folk groups. The comely Michelle, Doherty says, was “a constant source of inspiration” to Phillips’ songwriting. “Michelle was always running off, and he was always writing songs about it.”
Indeed it is just after the Mamas and the Papas have officially formed and started recording in L.A. — in the manner of the times, it all seemed to happen rather haphazardly — that Doherty begins dropping dark hints about his own infatuation with Michelle. The first act concludes on a note of foreboding, with Denny and Michelle locked in an illicit embrace, and Cass and John passed out on the floor of their communal house in Hollywood. Uh-oh.
Things continue on a path familiar to viewers of VH1’s “Behind the Music” series. The exploitative recording contract is signed amid a haze of Seconal and pot, meaning “to this day I don’t know how many records we sold,” as Doherty ruefully admits. As their songs top the charts, there’s little time for celebration as John and Dennis vie for Michelle’s attention. Cue “I Saw Her Again”: “I wrote the melody, John wrote the lyric. We were both totally miserable.” To save their reeling psyches, Michelle is kicked out of the group, then kicked back in when fans revolt.
There are some funny anecdotes about the high-flying rock life — literally, when Mama Cass gets to experience partial weightlessness when their Lear jet pilot takes them up to 70,000 feet. Denny’s affectionate recollections of Elliot are the most poignant moments in the show: She emerges as the warmest, smartest and most consistently down-to-earth among the quartet, even if she was the first to introduce them all to LSD. (She was certainly the most talented in the vocal department, and Doris Mason, the Mama Cass figure here, does a creditable job of imitating her wildcatting, bluesy delivery albeit with less natural lung power.)
The psychedelic pageantry of the times is enjoyably approximated by Jan Hartley’s lively, kaleidoscopic projections and the swirling neon colors of Brian Nason’s acid-trip lighting. But the audiovisual polish can only do so much to mitigate the rather static nature of the evening, which is essentially a monologue with musical interludes.
And the show’s confessional tone palls after a while, as Doherty gets bogged down in too much detail about who slept with whom, and when, as well as the requisite anguished admissions of his dependence on alcohol and drugs. For veterans of the era and younger fans who get a romantic kick out of its outlandish excesses, the show will be a pleasant nostalgia-fest. For others it’s more like listening to the long saga of someone else’s bad trip.