Vet Broadway producer Michael Butler (“Hair”) has instilled impressive production values into this finely wrought but thematically underwhelming tuner perusal into the life of a mythical ninth century female-in-monk’s-clothing who briefly ascended to the title of Bishop of Rome. Scripter-composer Christopher Moore does not offer enough plot substance or scenic evolution to buoy his melodious, eclectic pop/rock score, imaginatively staged by helmer-choreographer Bo Crowell. But “Pope Joan” is blessed with a highly talented 26-member ensemble that elevates the work far beyond its inherent credentials.
Though considered a historical myth, Joan Anglicus (of England) is the central character in a novel by Donna Woolfolk Cross and a 1972 film starring Liv Ullmann. She even found her way into Caryl Churchill’s 1982 stage play “Top Girls.”
As reimagined by Moore, Joan (Whitney Avalon) has entwined herself in the political/military shenanigans of King Louis II (Doug Barry), the great-grandson of Charlemagne who is determined to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pope in Rome. By day, Joan is known as the cleric John, King Louis’ confessor. By night, sans robes, she is Louis’ very willing bedmate.
Moore’s plot focuses mainly on Joan’s emotional ambivalence over posing as a male cleric, though she obviously displays a strong affinity for the calling through her spiritual wisdom and her not-to-be-sneezed-at ability to bring the dead back to life. Joan’s angst heavy-handedly drives the plot along, giving short thematic shrift to the machinations of Louis’ quest for power and the papal competition between Cardinals Anastasius (Fernando Orozco Jr.) and Nicholas (Anthony Gruppuso).
Avalon is impeccable as the maiden who doesn’t know how to handle the gifts she has been given and strives mightily to find the balance between her commitment to God and the physical love she has for Louis. Vocally, Avalon instills a captivating veracity into the yearnings of a young woman (“Ballade”), her counsel to Bryce Blue’s callow young cleric Lucius (“Outside These Walls”) and Joan’s confrontation with the papal hierarchy (“Another Rome”).
Barry is deliciously ruthless as the single-minded Louis, who nonetheless recognizes the inherent superiority of this woman he manipulates onto the throne of St. Peter but cannot control (“My Priest”). Also deserving high praise is Cristina Dohmen’s Martine, a servant who has devoted her life to Louis but yearns for a child of her own (“Les Enfants”). Kudos also to Suzanne Nichols’ power-lunged outing as the seer Lucretia (“Prologue,” “Penultimate”).
The supporting ensemble is as credible as any to be found on Broadway, highlighted by its commedia-esque “The Englishman’s Daughter,” the satirical “This Church Will Stand” and the lively “The Forum in Rome.”
In solid support of the ambitious staging of this tuner are the high-end production designs of Brent Mason (sets), Shon LeBlanc (costumes), Jeremy Pivnick (lights) and Rebecca Kessin (sound).