“Pope: An Epic Musical” at the New York Musical Theatre Festival at the Pearl Theatre Company (Closed Tuesday July 21, 2015)

Book and Lyrics by Justin Moran
Music and Additional Lyrics by Christopher Pappas
Directed by Peter Flynn
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

With a traditional Broadway structure, a delightful and often “edgy” book, and engaging lyrics and music, “Pope: An Epic Musical” chronicles a pontifical journey of epic proportions. The Pope of this musical (played with superhero charm and a winning vulnerability by Sam Bolen) navigates his way through his own adventures with danger, temptation, fidelity, and faith. There are no Sirens (let those who have ears hear) but there is an alluring pair of dangerous creatures in the guise of an Archbishop (played with a Joker-like cunningness by Ken Land) and a scrapbooking Cardinal (played with an edgy evil naiveté by Jason Edward Cook).

It seems the Millennial Generation (and the rest of creation as well) is – with Ariel, Rusty, Wendy Jo, and Urleen – “Holding Out for a Hero” (“Footloose”). Apparently the past pantheon of heroes (male, female, and fictional) are not meeting the needs of contemporary readers, movie-goers, or theatre-goers. Margaret Meade once implied that when society’s “structures” no longer provide support and hope for citizens they often turn to “alternate” sources of hope and support. Some positive, others of a more deleterious nature. Searching for a hero certainly falls in the more positive category.

“An Inner City in the Not Too Distant Future” needs a superhero – a Batman as it were to its Gotham – and finds that “savior” in Pope who perpetually “saves the day” until the Archbishop plots, with help from the jealous reporter Dexter (played with a devilish handsomeness by Dylan S. Wallach), to unseat Pope and ascend to the position himself. How Pope got to be Pope is part of the fun of this musical that first appeared at Fringe NYC 2010. Through a series of flashbacks and fantasy sequences, we learn Pope’s history. And through the same conventions, we experience Pope’s overthrow of the Archbishop and his return to superhero status.

There are eighteen scenes in “Pope” and some memorable songs. Among them are “Muffin Mass,” “Never Seen a Pope Like Me,” Goodbye O Ye Shameful,” “Dear God,” “The Mass Duet,” the outrageous “What Would Jesus Do,” “Holy Crap,” “Serve Him,” and “Be the Hero.”

“Pope: An Epic Musical” is – like “Urinetown” – zany, offbeat, and sometimes corny. But that is part of its charm. And like Odysseus, Pope faces and overcomes what seem like insurmountable obstacles to his “return home.” Pope even sets sail twice! There are nuns with shotguns, Cardinals who snap the necks of those who fall from grace, and a Jesus who (with the last name Rodriguez) has his own challenges with grace. Under Peter Flynn’s proficient direction, the ensemble cast shines throughout, most portraying several characters. Justin Moran’s characters could easily become cartoonish but they do not. They are authentic characters with real conflicts that through humor and charm can be identified by audience members.

Hopefully, “Pope: An Epic Musical” will be seen again in the near future on another stage.

[Note to NYMF: If the PTC Theatre is going to be used as a venue in the future its owners/managers must be required to provide sufficient air-conditioning for the comfort of it audience and the actors. At the performance this reviewer attended the theater was unbearably hot and it is a tribute to the actors’ craft they were able to do their work.]