If a young virgin can give birth to the Son of God, perhaps it’s also possible that an extraordinarily intelligent and ambitious young girl can become a monk, a cardinal, and, eventually, the Pope.
That’s the premise of Christopher Moore’s exhilarating new musical, “Pope Joan,” now having its world premiere in Los Angeles. Based on a mediaeval “urban legend” that supposedly took place in — depending on whose version you believe — the 9th, 11th, or 13th century, the scandal has been whispered about for centuries. And while there are scholars who still believe that the story chronicles actual events in the life of the woman who became Pope John VIII, most historians are convinced that there is no credible evidence to confirm it.
Moore, who wrote the book, lyrics, and music for “Pope Joan” doesn’t take sides. He tells the story in a straightforward narrative that is embellished by a dazzling cast of 26 outstanding singers and the innovative direction and choreography of Bo Crowell.
Set in the days before clerics were sworn to celibacy, the play claims that Pope Joan had a lover: King Louis, the Holy Roman Emperor. (Historically, she was believed to have had one lover/companion for many years or, conversely, a whole string of lovers.) And she was able to continue to hide her womanhood from her fellows by binding her breasts and by never bathing. (It was the custom in those days to wash only your hands, your face, and your feet.) Her term as Pope came to an abrupt and bitter end, however, after less than two and a half years, when she gave birth in a public street while leading a holy procession.
The controversy about her actual existence continues to this day. She is mentioned from time to time in various writings, and the people who believe that her story is based on fact claim that all real evidence was destroyed by the Catholic Church, much as the ancient Egyptian kings attempted to deface the statues and expunge the exploits of their predecessors.
Historical truth aside, the story that Christopher Moore has brought to sparkling life is an intriguing one. It is told in song: ballads in minor chords, spirituals with a whiff of Gregorian chants, and plaintive solos by Whitney Avalon as Joan, Doug Barry as King Louis, Cristina Dohmen as his lifelong nursemaid, Martine, Bryce Blue as Lucius, Joan’s faithful acolyte, and Anthony Gruppuso and Fernando Orozco, Jr. as Nicholas and Anastasius, the cardinals-who-would-be Pope. There is also a mystical sorceress named Lucretia (Suzanne Nichols), a one-woman Greek chorus who belts out prophecies that rock the house. And a six-piece orchestra led by Brian Murphy, to the musical arrangements of Randy Bowser.
The principals are backed up by an ensemble that changes from a crowd of peasants to the entourage of a Pope in seconds, thanks to the brilliant costume design of Shon LeBlanc, whose innovative costumes have been a highlight of some 600 productions throughout the country. Jeremy Pivnick, who adds to the drama with his impeccable lighting, is also a much-celebrated designer. And Brent Mason has designed a massive set that fills the stage but doesn’t crowd it.
“Pope Joan” will continue at the Stella Adler Theatre, upstairs at 6773 Hollywood Blvd., in Hollywood, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. through March 22. Call (323) 960-4412 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.