BWW Reviews: Theatre Unleashed's POPE! An Epic Musical Tries Hard but Doesn't Fly
In 2012 Theatre Unleashed produced a clever little parody musical by Justin Moran called The Spidey Project that spoofed a big problematic Broadway extravaganza no one could stop talking about (Spider-Man, Turn off the Dark). It also took some very funny shots at the comic book superhero genre as a whole. Expectations were low and the show ended up being loads of fun. Score one for the good guys.
Now T.U. has mounted Moran's latest new work, POPE! An Epic Musical, by tapping a similar well. Both deal in superhero trade but this time around the story isn't based on a pre-existing character everyone knows and loves. Instead, this good guy is an obscure young Catholic Pope (Jase Lindgren) who leads his people with sermons inspired by everyday objects like New England clam chowder and blueberry muffins.
It's a set-up that could easily skewer a topic like religion with great results but the two main attributes of this new musical - exuberance and good intentions - aren't enough. The biggest problem is that it's hard to root for a hero who turns into a sniveling whiner at the first sign of trouble...especially after he's been sweetly espousing his faith as the answer to everyone around him since he was thirteen. When it comes time for him to put his faith in God, he slinks away to Africa licking his wounds and wallowing in drink and despair. All it took was an evil Archbishop (Shawn Cahill) to publicly discredit him with a trumped-up sex scandal. (Now that's a pope who would never make it in this day and age.)
Lindren is sincere, in a Ben Stiller kind of way, but the writer gives his superficial character such a weak journey that by the time he has the chance to rise to the occasion, there is little to care about. A mild-mannered leader who has never struggled a day in his life and gives up so easily doesn't feel worthy of our sympathy.
Still, even with the thin plot and gimmicky jokes, the work of the director and actors can sometimes overcome weak material if they are on their game. In this case, Gregory Crafts and his cast favor big performances that aren't always based in truth so the humor has nothing in which to ground itself. Robot altar boys from outer space and a surprise tap break that came out of left field featuring R. Benito Cardenas were jokes that landed but, for the most part, the ensemble is out-of-step and over-the-top. The result is a production that feels like it's trying too hard.
The score is made up of mostly upbeat pop songs (music & musical direction by Christopher Pappas, lyrics by Moran) whose humor is undermined at times by the volume of the keyboard accompaniment. I also question the choice of making the pre-show and intermission music so somber. The Gregorian chants are enough to lull you to sleep, casting a pall over the theater before the show even begins and killing any momentum gained in Act I when the show breaks for intermission.
If exuberance and good intentions were enough, POPE! might come closer to the epic experience predicted in its title. As it is, for this audience member, this one just didn't fly.
POPE! AN EPIC MUSICAL
Through November 17, 2014
The Belfry Stage Upstairs at the Crown
11031 Camarillo St.
North Hollywood, CA 91602
Tickets: $15, (818) 849-4039 or
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