Sweet review from NYTheatre.com
*** Let’s just clear one thing up: All the credit for the sweet choral arrangements goes entirely to our fantastic musical director Adam Podd!
Josh Sherman · August 21, 2010
Musical theatre and the Catholic Church—it’s like chocolate and peanut butter, they just seem to taste so good when slapped together. Pope! An Epic Musical attempts to add themselves to the tradition-rich list of goofy, tongue-in-cheek religious send ups, and in its own very lo-fi way it succeeds. Creators Justin Moran (book and lyrics) and Christopher Pappas (music) have created a deliberately cartoonish but very tuneful take of a young man’s heroic journey to reinvigorate faith in the Church. With the help of a very game cast and a great sense of playfulness, Pope! wins the hearts of the audience through its commitment to the comedy and the clear enthusiasm of the participants. Though a tad long at 90 minutes, with a little trimming and a lot more polish, I could see Pope! running for awhile—preferably in a refurbished house of worship to add some irony.
Our hero, Pope (Ryan Nelson)—yes, that’s his name—knows from the time he is in eighth grade that he’s been ordained to lead the Church into a new era of prosperity. He is lured into brief temptation by his adoring classmate Mary Elizabeth (Liz Bachman)—much to the dismay of eighth grade rival Dexter (a terrific Jonathan Roufaeal). Quickly there is a flash-forward to 28 years later as Pope has now become…well, THE Pope and Dexter a flashy journalist. Pope has, of course, gotten a 98% approval rating since ascending the throne and creates “inspirational” sermons through common items like blueberry muffins. Enter the stereotypical evil Archbishop (Scott Hart) who rapidly gets in cahoots with Dexter to plot the Pope’s downfall. Through a bizarrely unexplained sex scandal (the only part of the show that fails to work), Pope is exiled and takes on his traditional hero’s odyssey before returning to fight the new regime.
As a total spoof, pop culture send ups are abundantly found throughout Pope! An Epic Musical: there’s a visual Charlie’s Angels gag (featuring nuns, of course), an homage to the infamous “Spanish Inquisition” number from the Mel Brooks comedy classic History of the World: Part I, more than one Spamalot reference, and the grand finale “We All Learned Something” should just send some royalty checks to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park. Fortunately for Moran and Pappas’s legal team, the musical is a love letter that follows in the path of their comedy forefathers and, at the very least, keeps its audience laughing during the somewhat ludicrous plot twists.
It would be unfair to call the show a knockoff, though, as Moran’s score is the star of the show, not Pope, because it is as infectiously tasteless and bubbly as anything that Mel Brooks has composed lately. The two strongest are the very original, dirty number between Pope and Mary Elizabeth entitled “Duet: in the Mass” (which probably would make Parker and Stone jealous for not having thought of it first), and the show-stopping “What Would Jesus Do” number, in which a fictitious recently deceased Mets second baseman named Jesus Martinez (played winningly by Roufaeal) advises Pope on his course of action.
Director Greg Moran (father of the author) keeps the pace moving for the most part, and the three piece “Swingin’ Pope! Band” tie the proceedings together smoothly. Kudos are due to Justin Moran as well for the complicated (for Fringe, anyway) choral arrangements on the hymnal numbers—as well as for the ensemble, who confidently belt out such numbers a cappella. There is a lot to like, and laugh at, while immersing oneself in Pope! An Epic Musical. Take the journey while you can—you’ll leave the theatre humming to yourself for a change, even if you feel slightly silly while doing it.