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Pope Joan at the Stella Adler

By January 25, 2009

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Pope Joan at the Stella Adler TheatreWhile the big theatres in Los Angeles get most of the press, it is finding gems among the myriad of small theatres that really demonstrates the overall quality of the LA legit stage scene. The world premiere of Pope Joan at the Stella Adler is one such gem.

Start with Christopher Moore's racy musical embellishment on a 12th century legend of a female pope. Put it in the hands of producer Michael Butler (Hair on Broadway) and award-winning director/choreographer Bo Crowell, and you get an entertainingly irreverent blend of camp and piety a la Jesus Christ Superstar with a nod to Monty Python.

The original legend claims that sometime between 850 and 1200 AD, a woman scholar, masquerading as a man, became a priest and later was elected Pope until her gender was discovered, an event stricken from all public records. Moore adds a hypothetical sexual relationship with King Louis of France, adding even more elements of passion and power than the original legend.

Moore's musical score ranges from pop-rock to Gregorian chants; the lyrics from poking fun to prayerful. The dancing cardinals are delightful.

Whitney Avalon's stellar vocal dynamics as Joan and Suzanne Nichols' Eartha-Kit-like Lucretia stand out among a talented cast. Doug Barry's lusty King Louis has lots of smarm with injections of charm.

It's the little details that really add professional polish to a stage show, and the production quality here in the tiny Stella Adler Theatre is excellent. Brent Mason's set converts effortlessly from palace to street to Vatican. Shon LeBlanc's costumes transform priests to paupers. And Jeremy Pivnick's beatific lighting beautifully sets up saintly moments. Kudos to Rebecca Kessin's sound design for keeping the volume of the 26-member cast well balanced without overwhelming the small space.

There are a few things that could be tweaked to improve the production. Currently all the laughs are in act one, so act two doesn't have the same balance of silly and serious (reprise the dancing cardinals!). I'd like to see Anthony Gruppuso add more dimension to his Cardinal/Pope Nicholas. And Cristina Dohmen's (Martina) beautiful voice would be better showcased if her act 2 songs were in a different key. She could also use some aging makeup since she looks younger than the man she supposedly raised (I notice in the program, they have a wig master, but no makeup artist listed, so she may be on her own on this one).

Even with its few shortcomings, this is an entirely enjoyable show. See it now, so when it hit's Broadway you'll be able to say "I saw the world premiere." If you go, come back and leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

When: Janury 16 - March 22, 2009, Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 and 7 pm
Where: Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028
Cost: $34.99 (Senior and student discounts available)
Parking: $2 for 4 hrs validated parking at Hollywood & Highland (leave plenty of time to park)
Info: www.popejoantix.com
Note: Check Goldstar.com or Stubdog.com for discounted tickets. (Read the Review of Goldstar.com or Review of Stubdog.com)

Photo by Melinda McLeod, courtesy of Pope Joan
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