Pope Joan The Musical Theatre Review

                         

The Show

Pope is dead. The Christian world is in mourning. Within the Vatican walls, cardinals plot and maneuver to be the successor. And in France, the once stubbed King Louis II (Douglas Barry) sees his opportunity to grow his empire. Louis is accompanied to Rome by his lady in waiting Martine (Cristina Dohmen) and noble religious council Brother John (Whitney Avalon).

It is in Rome that the level of Brother John’s celebrity is revealed to the young king. To the Cardinals at the Vatican Brother John is a known for his scholastic prowess. To Lucius (Bryce Blue), the teenaged priestling charged with servitude during his stay in Rome, Brother John is an exciting new source of education and growing adoration.

However, for the local banshee Lucretia (Suzanne Nichols), Brother John’s eyes connotes the tragic tale of The Englishman’s Daughter; a tale of how a mob turned on the young girl (Allie Costa), hailing her a witch after she raising a fallen child from the dead. Alas, Lucretia realizes what Louis already knows: Brother John is in fact a woman, Joan. Fate would have Joan perform the same miracle in the Forum in the presence of Lucius. This time, in the guise of a priest, the act is seen as a miracle which causes Joan’s meteoric ascend up the Vatican ranks.

Whitney Avalon (l) and Doug Barry in "Pope Joan"

Things could not be developing more perfectly for Louis, who relishes the fact that he will soon have a Pope under his control, and an empire that will soon include Rome. But Joan is quickly losing her taste for Louis’ greed and scheming. He plans to loot the treasury fly in the face of Joan’s “God given mandate” to feed the poor. The lovers slowly find themselves becoming bitter enemies. Moreover, Joan’s gender becomes an obstacle she is finding increasingly difficult to manage.

The Good

The ensemble moments of this play were golden. The spectrum of voices created by the cast as a whole is engaging unified chorus. Likewise the choreography is lively and fun without the slightest slight of comprise for the limited performance area. This chemistry can perhaps be attributed to the fact that many of the players in this show worked together in the critically acclaimed revival of Hair at the Met Theatre last year. A beautiful harmonious collage of spectacle and sound.

High raise should be given to Jeremy Pivnick, whose work enlisted all the best elements that lighting design can endow to a production: mood, transition and environment. Well done.

The Cast of "Pope Joan"

The Bad

Honestly… Individually the performances were subpar across the board. Aside from Ms. Avalon’s lovely singing voice, the acting was an array of indicating and caricatures. As a production, this piece could have been much funnier or much more dramatic. Instead we are left with a circus of muddled melodrama, ill-timed comic moments and missed opportunities.

Rarely in the show do the stakes get so high or intense that a “burst into song” moment is warranted, which is kind of the whole point of making a show a musical. In fact, the content of the songs only occasionally related to the immediate action of the plot preceding it. 

The ensemble engaged the audience, but most of the solo performances were exactly that, solos straight to the audience, neither a character driven internal monologue that has found its way out of the thinker head through song, nor a character letting the spectators in on the plot. However these songs were to be delivered, they fell flat.

When is play happens is unclear. The play itself feels like a period piece that wants to be contemporary. The play takes place over the course of a year, but that is not clear either. A lot of the music, to my ear, bears more than a passing resemblance to other popular musicals. While some of the music was good, overall the score lacks a cohesive voice and style.

Douglas Barry plays Louis II as sleazy and sophomoric rather than as a charming manipulator. So when it comes time for the audience to see this character as a serious deadly threat to our heroine, it’s a tough sell. The actress playing Martine, the woman who raised Louis from childhood, looks to be the same age as the king himself. And Cardinal Nicholas (Anthony Gruppuso) does not serve as the Iago character the playwright wants him to be.

Whitney Avalon (l) and Fernando Orozco Jr. in "Pope Joan"

In regard to plot points, if “Brother John” is a renowned scholar, and understands the biological working of how a child is conceived, at least to the degree that s/he can explain it to Lucius, then it is a bit incredible that “Joan” does not know what a menstrual cycle is; particularly since she expressed to Lucius the importance of some worldly knowledge beyond the gates of the church.

The concept of Pope Joan is a very good one: a woman penetrates the elite world of the clergy – exclusively reserve for men – and wants to actually use the power she finds there, in service of the common people rather than for personal gain. However, beyond the story, most elements need work. This musical simply does not feel ready for prime time.

Pope Joan opens Saturday January 24, 2009 and continues through Sunday March 22, 2009 @

Stella Adler Theatre
6773 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90028

(Validated parking at the KODAK Center)

Thursday, Fridays & Saturdays @ 8pm
Sundays @ 2pm & 7pm

Tickets are $34.99

For more information call: (323) 960-4412

www.popejoantix.com

Photos by: Melinda McLeod

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