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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Pope Joan

I was alone but the Holy Ghost was always there— Joan

Pope Joan
Whitney Avalon as Joan and Doug Barry as Louis
(Photo: Melinda McLeod)
What links Hair, the Vietnam-era rock musical that introduced nudity and flower children to the American stage, with Pope Joan, the new musical about a female pope who may or may not have lived in the 9th century? The sensibility of producer Michael Butler, who always welcomes the far out.

Debuting at Hollywood's Stella Adler Theatre, with Broadway on its mind, the two and a half hour production with book, lyrics and music by Christopher Moore still needs shaping and emphasis. The book, based on stories that stubbornly survived the centuries, follows a girl who starts life as the devout daughter of an English minstrel with a gift for faith healing and an aptitude for scholarship whetted in the monastery where she takes refuge, disguised as a priest, after narrowly escaping being burned at the stake for her perceived miracles.

She winds up as confessor to Louis, King of France, who becomes her lover. When they go to Rome for the accession of the new Pope, Joan finds her calling. A few more miracles get her elected Pope with a plan to give the Vatican's treasury to the poor and a war with erstwhile lover Louis to support it.

Joan's purity loses ground to the corruption of church and state. Although the cast sings a rousing chorus at the end, it's more optimistic than convincing.

Moore's music is particularly strong in the ballads, such as "My Priest", Louis's love song, and "Les Enfants", the wistful peaon to loving and losing children sung with beautiful clarity by Cristina Dohmen as Martine, the lady-in-waiting who raised Louis. Many of the ensemble songs are didactic and those solos which tilt towards satire aren't delivered with the style and flair that would give them zing. The show could profit from shaping the book away from the battles and politics and molding it more closely to the characters and conflicts of the principles.

The cast is anchored by the outstanding performance of Whitney Avalon as Joan, who gives the role an understated gravitas and spirituality that makes the character real. Allie Costa echoes her beautifully in a bell-like voice as Young Joan. Doug Barry brings a fine voice to the greedy, mean and lecherous Louis. Suzanne Nichols is riveting as Lucretia, the blind seeress who rescues young Joan from the stake. Bryce Blue shines as Lucius, the teen-age monk who is Joan's fervent acolyte.

Production values are very good. The small stage with a rather Disneyesque set design by Brent Mason doesn't have much room for director/choreographer Bo Crowell's moves but he keeps the production crisp and the dancers deft. Jeremy Pivnick's mellow lighting design helps and Shon LeBlanc's costume design stresses colorful simplicity.

This has always been a fascinating story with scope for many versions. It's been made into a movie with Liv Ullman and this year another film about Pope Joan is coming out. The present musical lays a groundwork with some positive assets that deserve more cultivation.

Pope Joan
Producer: Michael Butler
Book, Lyrics, Music: Christopher Moore
Director/Choreographer: Bo Crowell
Cast: Whitney Avalon (Joan), Doug Barry (Louis), Cristina Dohmen (Martine), Suzanne Nichols (Lucretia), Anthony Gruppuso (Nicholas), Bryce Blue (Lucius), Fernando Orozco, Jr., (Anastasius), Allie Costa (Young Joan).
Set Design: Brent Mason
Costume Design: Shon LeBlanc
Lighting Design: Jeremy Pivnick
Production Stage Manager: Melina Franks
Running Time: Two and a half hours, one intermission
Running Dates: January 24-March 22, 2009
Where: Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, Reservations: (323) 960-4412
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on January 24.
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Prologue / Lucretia, Ensemble
  • This Church Will Stand /Ensemble
  • The Story of My Life /Martine, Louis
  • A Sad and Tragic History /Cardinals,Nicholas The Englishman's Daughter Lucretia, Ensemble
  • Ballade / Joan
  • Outside These Walls /Lucius, Joan
  • The Forum in Rome / Ensemble
  • Only One / Nicholas
  • Another Rome / Anastasius, Joan
  • Man of the Moment / Anastasius, Louis, Nicholas
  • My Priest / Louis
Act Two
  • Opening /Lucretia
  • Joan's Coronation /Acolytes
  • This Is the Hour /Joan
  • Stand With Me /Joan, Louis
  • Les Enfants /Martine
  • Pray With You /Lucius, Joan
  • With Fire /Nicholas
  • A Simple Thing /Young Joan
  • A Thousand Years From Now /Joan
  • The Mob/If You Dare /Ensemble
  • Penultimate / Lucretia
  • Finale / Martine, Lucretia, Ensemble
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