The rise and fall of popular 1960’s vocal group The Mamas and the Papas is explored in Magnormos’ Flower Children.
The rise and fall of popular 1960’s vocal group The Mamas and the Papas is explored in local music theatre company Magnormos’ Flower Children.
This original new musical is an entirely Australian production of an American story, a jukebox musical written by local writer Peter Fitzpatrick with musical arrangements and interpolations of the Mamas and Papas back catalogue by Aaron Joyner. The show premiered at Theatre Works in 2011 to great success and has now been restaged at The Comedy Theatre.
Similar in structure to recent megahit Jersey Boys, the show charts the journey of the original four members of the group Cass Elliot (Casey Donovan), John Phillips (Matt Hetherington), Denny Doherty (Dan Humphries) and Michelle Phillips (Laura Fitzpatrick) through a conventional chronological narrative interspersed with extended monologues. The characters regularly break the fourth wall by directly addressing the audience to fill them in on their personal experiences of the events happening on stage.
The show opens with the band performing their biggest hit ‘California Dreaming’ on a TV variety show in the mid 1960’s. This motif is visited again at the top of the second act however this time the production around the band is more elaborate, giving the audience a clear indication of just how much their fame grew over a short period of time. We witness the highs and lows of the Mamas and Papas’ career, from the early days of casual song-writing sessions to the strained personal relationships and emotional fallout from betrayal and substance addiction.
Peter Fitzpatrick’s book for Flower Children is one of the strongest elements of the show; it’s the glue that holds everything together. The script is very funny at times, sprinkled with the right amount of pathos and contains some cracking one-liners (eg. Mama Cass: “Never carry stationery in a muumuu!”). Fitzpatrick succeeds in revealing the motivations and emotional core of nearly all the central characters. The problem is that the narrative hinges so heavily on the affect one character has over the others and the character in question is never fully explored. By the time Michelle takes center stage at the end of the show to give her side of the story we are no closer to understanding why she had such a powerful influence over the fate of the band.
Flower Children is ultimately a celebration of the music of the Mamas and Papas; the intricate harmonies, ethereal lyrics and the pure magic that was captured in the recording studio. This show is blessed with a cast who sing the material gloriously. Their recreations of some of the bands biggest hits, including ‘Go Where You Wanna Go’ and ‘Dedicated To The One I Love,’ are simply stunning. The performers are strongly supported by a rocking band lead by Musical Director Sophie Thomas and greatly assisted by Marcello Lo Ricco’s superlative sound design.
Matt Hetherington is reliably solid as tortured songwriter John, Laura Fitzpatrick plays the difficult role of Michelle with an air of grace and Dan Humphris’ spectacular tenor soars in the role of Denny. Then we come to Casey Donovan as Mama Cass. From the moment she enters Donovan owns the stage, perfectly capturing the sassy personality of her character and almost tearing the roof off The Comedy with her phenomenally powerful vocals. Her performance of ‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me’ is literally a showstopper. We all knew this young woman could sing but she also proves herself as an accomplished actor and a truly thrilling stage presence.
There are however some major staging problems with Flower Children. Christina Logan-Bell’s set is rather unattractive and ultimately restricts the movement of the actors; they are stuck constantly ascending and descending large off-white tiled stairs that dominate the centre of the stage. They also seem to be quite dangerous as at numerous points throughout the show there was an audible collective gasp from the audience as several actors tripped and stumbled on these steps almost falling on the stage. A large circular wooden structure upstage serves as both a recording studio and a raised platform for the onstage band. Nondescript chairs, tables and various other small props are brought onstage when needed.
Opening night was also plagued by some obvious technical glitches. During the middle of a poignant scene between Michelle and Mama Cass a row of prop microphones on a wire dropped from the heavens before promptly being whisked away.
The costumes somewhat evoke the 1960’s era but often appear misshapen and ill fitting. There are also too many unnecessary costume changes. They eat up stage time and sometimes come off as a bit clunky.
Aaron Joyner’s production is strong, but a few small directorial choices slightly weaken the show’s success. Before the curtain rises a cacophony of sound bites from the sixties attempts to place the audience firmly within the timeframe of the show. All the typical stuff is there; newsreaders talking about the Vietnam War and hippies calling for peace etc. This theatrical device seems a bit obvious and the following opening scene of the show is strangely lacking in energy, failing to kick off the performance with a bang. The role of the ensemble is also problematic. They seem superfluous, except when portraying supporting characters integral to the narrative, and Joyner seems to just bring them on occasionally to fill out the stage with some smoking and writhing choreography.
Magnormos are a fantastic company dedicated to creating new local music theatre and Flower Children is a worthy representation of the hard work that goes into such a venture. People who love the Mamas and Papas will adore this show and everyone else should go along to experience some incredible musicians and performers bring their music to life on stage.
Wednesday 22nd May 2013
Flower Children: The Mamas and the Papas story
Comedy Theatre, Melbourne