‘Dream a Little Dream:’ Free love has a price

At first glance, the short-lived group The Mamas and the Papas seems an odd topic for a musical. The quartet released just four significant albums nearly half a century ago and neither invented folk-rock – the Byrds did that – nor pushed it far in any new direction.

But John and Michelle Phillips, Cass Elliott and Denny Doherty did battle through internal rivalries, illicit love affairs and drug addiction. Afterward, all except Elliott (who died 40 years ago next week) wrote or filmed some “true-story” account of the band.

Doherty wrote “Dream a Little Dream” with Paul Ledoux, apparently to set straight a narrative he felt John Phillips had distorted in a PBS documentary. At 62, Doherty played his younger self in the four-month off-Broadway run in 2003; he died four years later in his native Canada.

The play, which opens the 2014-15 season at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, might be superficially entertaining if it were only a jukebox musical. But Doherty and Ledoux made it a microcosm of the 1960s: We get the loss of hippie innocence, the selling out of “pure” folk for folk-rock (in Phillips’ mind), the rise of feminism as embodied by the blunt and clear-headed Elliott. The civil rights struggle, free love movement and even the shooting of JFK all make a brief impact.

Speed and brevity become the production’s main strengths and weaknesses. Director-choreographer Tod A. Kubo keeps his foot on the accelerator, which is a boon when the show drags at times. Yet social issues and personal dilemmas whirl by so quickly that none has significant weight. If we feel the pain of lonely Mama Cass, whose big heart and big ego are trapped in an obese body, that has less to do with the writing than the powerful performance by Brianna Smith, who makes her ATC debut.

Because the show explores the roots and branches of the band, half the 25 musical numbers are by other individuals or groups. Joseph Klosek delivers an especially fine “If You’re Going to San Francisco” as sometime Papa Scott McKenzie; Nicia Carla, Matt Cosper and Chaz Pofahl enliven many small roles.

Smith, Jon Parker Douglas (who plays Doherty), Grant Watkins and Caroline Bower (as John and Michelle Phillips) harmonize with remarkable sound-alike skill, even though some high notes have to be fudged or transposed. I could make out a few lyrics to long-familiar songs for the first time: I not only understood from the context of the show what was being sung about in “Creeque Alley” but what was being sung, period. (Turns out it’s pronounced “Creaky Alley.”)

Doherty included famous band lore, such as John waking Michelle up for help in writing “California Dreaming.” Yet the show doesn’t merely skip from anecdote to anecdote. He’s been frank in his feelings, however clunkily they’re sometimes expressed, and he spares no one.

Michelle comes off as a space cadet who had to learn to carry a tune, John as a dictatorial but talented guy blind to the directions music would take. Doherty portrays himself as an insensitive alcoholic who cheated haphazardly with Michelle.

Only Cass, tough and defensive but the best singer in the band, gets consistently positive treatment. Rather than depict the quartet dribbling away to nothing, as it did, Doherty ends with her 1974 death after it dissolved. He seeks one lingering note of tragedy and finds it in her passing, not the quibbling of himself and the other faux hippies.