Christopher Moore's musical (he wrote the book, lyrics and music), here directed and choreographed by Bo Crowell, hasn't quite been in development since 800 A.D., which is when the eponymous female pope (whose existence floats on rumor and speculation), but it must feel that way to the creators of a show that's been over a decade in the making. There are some really interesting ideas at the core here, but they're not brought into focus by Moore or Crowell. Priest "John" (a woman in disguise) lives a life of piety to God, which in her mind includes exercising her hearty libido, while the Church parades its wares in any number of different disguises. This all provides the possibilities of an intriguing fable about authenticity and artifice. What we're served up instead is a largely tedious historical epic about a naive female child, tenderly played by Whitney Avalon, driven from England to a French monarch's bed. Through an intricate web of fortune and alliances, not to mention her uncanny skill to raise the dead, she is elected Pope, under the name "John." (Yes, a few know her secret but have political reasons not to reveal it.) It takes until the middle of Act 2 for her actually to make it into Pontiff's garb, which is when her callowness comes to the surface; her insistence on feeding the peasants while she's surrounded by power-mongering clerics is not so far removed from politics in Washington right now. If it were about her naive piety, this could be a musical remake of Shaw's St. Joan, but this work's larger purpose is too muddied to draw that conclusion. Moore seems so determined to tell a biographical history (including opening, largely irrelevant sequences devoted to the fall of the Roman empire and the birth of Christianity, and one cumbersome chunk of expository back story that rounds out Act 1). The effect of all this lumbering narrative, which includes dreadful, archaic dialogue, is that the one striking visual symbol of the central character, stripped and with a crucifix resting on her naked back, isn't really the essence of much that's actually being dramatized. A six-piece band onstage isn't well served by voices that can barely hold a tune (the chorales have the strongest effect), too many supporting actors have scant stage presence, Crowell's "choreography" is simply movement for non-dancers, and Brent Mason's set of medieval walls and platforms stifle the allegorical potential rather than giving it the flight of, say, Arthurian legend. Most of whatever glimmers of magic appears on the stage come from Shon LeBlanc's gorgeous costumes. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd.; Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru March 22. (323) 960-4412.
Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 & 7 p.m. Starts: Jan. 16. Continues through March 22, 2009