This article was corrected on July 11, 2003.
Musical numbers: “Pope Joan Overture,” “Holy Ghost One,” “This Church Will Stand,” “My Priest,” “Holy Ghost Two,” “A Sad and Tragic History,” “The Englishman’s Daughter,” “Stand With Me,” “Alone Together,” “The Forum in Rome, ” “The Healing,” “Only One,” “Another Rome,” “Man of the Moment,” “Coronation,” “This Is the Hour,” “Les Enfants,” “Pray With You,” “A Thousand Years from Now,” “A Hill Called the Vatican,” “Finale.”
Producer Michael Butler initially made his mark in the theater world producing the commercial transfer of the hit musical “Hair” in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “Pope Joan” marks Butler’s return to the legit biz after a long period attending to family business concerns.
Would that “Pope Joan” had “Hair’s” potential to make international theater history. But this new work based on a legend about the only female pontiff is a hopelessly lame affair — full of turgid musical numbers, poorly developed characters and an uninspiring book that desperately tries to hold everything together.
As is fleetingly apparent in “Pope Joan” and more so in an earlier work, “Son of Fire,” composer and author Christopher Moore does have talent. He can write a hummable tune and serviceable lyrics, but too much of the time in “Pope Joan,” Moore substitutes instantly forgettable, lugubrious music for memorable melodies. Only two songs — the sweet duet “Alone Together” and the rousing anthem “A Thousand Years From Now”– bring some energy to what is otherwise a dreary, humorless “Pope Joan.”
What adds to “Pope Joan’s” problems is the book’s stylistic schizophrenia: Moore freely mixes modern-day slang with more formal locutions, and the result is jarring and quite silly at times.
“Pope Joan” traces the rise of a young woman named Joan (Elizabeth Laidlaw) who has been blessed with special powers to raise the dead. Disguised as a male scholar called John Anglicus, Joan travels to Rome with her lover, Louis, King of France (Scott Brush). When they reach Rome, Joan and Louis become involved in papal politics, and through various melodramatic twists and turns, Joan/John is elected pope. Joan soon discovers she is pregnant, and when Louis turns against her, Pope Joan’s gender secret is revealed and her tragic fate sealed.
If Moore is trying to make a statement about feminism in “Pope Joan,” it is unfortunately lost in the meandering, muddled plot. Moore has little directing experience, and it shows in “Pope Joan.” The staging throughout lacks flair and finesse.
The cast of “Pope Joan” struggles without much luck to infuse “Pope Joan” with some life. Brush is the best of the lot as the decadent Louis. Cecily Strong has a lovely voice, but little presence as the young Joan. Ron Sherry has a few nice moments as the Vatican librarian Lucius. But Laidlaw lacks much-needed charm as Joan.
Andrew Meyers has designed a nondescript facade with columns as the show’s principal set piece and then lit it rather blandly. Margaret Morettini’s papal costumes border on sumptuous, but most of her other creations look pretty bargain basement.