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Denny Doherty, Richard Burke, Angela Gaylor,
and Doris Mason in Dream a Little Dream
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
"Life can never be exactly like we want it to be," The Mamas and the Papas sang when they covered the Lowman Pauling-Ralph Bass song "Dedicated to the One I Love" at the start of their startling '60s pop career. How undeniably true a comment on life -- and also, sad to say, how undeniably true of art. Dream a Little Dream, subtitled "the Mamas and Papas Musical," isn't exactly like we want it to be, either.

But it often comes close. Overseen by "Papa" Denny Doherty, as he still bills himself, the music in this latest opus from pop-revue king Randal Myler has been scrupulously replicated. Those responsible for getting it right, including the funky musical director Ed Alstrom, have paid close attention to the vocal and instrumental arrangements that the best-selling group confected during those few years when they could do no wrong in the grooves. Influenced by the Beatles, as who wasn't at the time, they specialized in writing or finding lilting melodies and giving them a quasi-rock grit distinguished by sunny overlays of harmonized riffs. There was a buoyant joy in their work shared by few other groups, and they were further distinguished by the fact that women's voices were as prominent as men's in The Mamas and the Papas.

According to Doherty, he and his golden throated colleagues gave a name to the sound synergistically acquired when their voices blended; they called it Harvey, "an overtone, a fifth voice that was created when the four of us sang together." The glad tidings of Dream a Little Dream are that Harvey is constantly present. The infectious tempos, the sophisticated harmonics, the power common to the group's large bouquet of songs are unchanged, even if the keys perhaps are. With Doherty fronting a quartet that includes Richard Burke (in the John Phillips slot), Angela Gaylor (a dead ringer for Michelle Phillips), and Doris Mason (weighing in as Mama Cass), The Mamas and the Papas' first single, "California Dreamin'," is as rousing as it ever was. Likewise worthy are replicas of "Monday Monday," "I Saw Her Again," "Got a Feelin'," and "Creeque Alley," the autobiographical song that John and Michelle wrote with dollops of gleeful wit about how the group came to be.

While Harvey is on hand, some of The Mamas and Papas trademark tunes aren't in this show at the Village Theatre (formerly the Village Gate). Fans longing to hear "Dancin' in the Street" will be disappointed, likewise those eager for "Words of Love" and "I Call Your Name." Curiously, Doherty tells the story of Cass Elliot's love for John Lennon and how it worked its way into "I Call Your Name," but he allows the moment to pass without tossing in a reprise of the Lennon-Paul McCartney catalogue entry. Perhaps he figures that Mason wouldn't quite have the familiar edge to her delivery that Elliot, born Ellen Naomi Cohen, had.

Or perhaps, even while praising Elliot's insights and loyalty throughout the show, Doherty is inclined to keep the spotlight on himself. (He's the only one who speaks during the two-act reminiscence while, in the background, the three Mamas and Papas stand-ins and the four musicians smile.) A little tooting of his own horn makes sense; after all, in John and Michelle Phillips's respective autobiographies, "Papa John" and "California Dreamin': The True Story of the Mamas and the Papas," they each put themselves front and center and relay conflicting accounts of the same events. For instance: John Phillips declares that although he threatened to fire Michelle, he never made good on the threat; Michelle remembers that she was fired outright and before witnesses.

With all of this wholesale rewriting of personal histories, why shouldn't Doherty put the record straight? On the other hand, why should anyone believe his account of the checkered and woefully drug-laden Mamas and Papas saga any more than John's or Michelle's? If, by his own admission -- no, his insistence -- he had a drink in one hand and a joint in the other throughout the entire time when the group was raking it in, how can he be expected to recollect with any exactitude what went on between and among the pals? To hear Doherty kiss-and-tell it, both Michelle and Cass had the hots for him; he stops short of describing the most intimate moments he shared with Michelle, his best friend's wife, but he doesn't think twice about recounting Cass's request for his hand in marriage. Someone listening to this caddish confidence might wonder how Cass Elliot's description of the scene would go. Who was zooming whom during that encounter and during a subsequent late-night tryst in Cass's "big ol' bed?"

Doris Mason and Denny Doherty in Dream a Little Dream
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
What really transpired may never be known, since Elliot died of a bad heart -- not of choking on a ham sandwich -- in 1974, an occurrence that is given a tearful report by Doherty. His reference to John Phillips's death in 2001 is less full; in fact, it's downright cursory. And the rest of his narration, co-written with Paul Ledoux and during which he repeatedly addresses the audience as "man," is not the smooth blend typical of Mamas and Papas product. Doherty interweaves his own beginnings as a Canadian folk singer with a group called The Colonials and then The Halifax Three with the broader political scene, making a few questionable observations en route. For example, he maintains that many bands disintegrated after John F. Kennedy's assassination, as if one thing were a result of the other. The truth is that, during the rock years, groups split and reformed no matter what else was going on in society and for many different reasons. The Mamas and The Papas, it seems obvious, fell apart as a result of substance abuse.

Although Doherty makes a few laudable observations about the early '60s Greenwich Village music scene and about John and Michelle Phillips's mounting of the Monterey International Pop Music Festival during the 1967 summer of love ("I swear, this whole thing started in my living room"), he would do well to cut the extraneous bits and to go lighter on his unctuous delivery. Better to replace those sour ingredients, as well as the songs associated with other performers, with more of what The Mamas and the Papas were always about and what audiences want to hear.

It's odd that director Myler -- whose Love, Janis had a respectable run in this same venue and whose Hank Williams: Lost Highway has just moved to the Little Shubert -- has allowed Doherty to get away with his indulgences. He has kept a watchful eye over every other aspect of the production, which is helped along by Walt Spangler's basic set and Jan Hartley's not-so-basic video projections, including the kind of Pucci-print visuals typical of light shows at '60s rock concerts. Costume designer David C. Woolard has produced any number of psychedelic blouses and over-blouses for Gaylor as Michelle and Mason as Cass. Brian Nason's lighting design is fine, and sound designer Lucas J. Corrubia, Jr. stays on top of his assignment -- which is, without question, the production's most important.

The Mamas and the Papas had an irresistible sound. Dream a Little Dream could use more of that and less of Denny Doherty's sound and fury, signifying less than he thinks.

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