FringeNYC review: Pope: The Musical
The Vatican has never seemed cooler (or more suburban) than it does in Pope: The Musical, currently playing as part of the FringeNYC festival. In typical nudge-nudge off-off-Broadway musical fashion, this silly show features a nerdy American eighth grader who dreams of one day leading all of Catholicism, instead of a rock band. Of course in this show, the two occupations sort of look the same.
On the precipice of entering high school, Pope (yes, that’s his name) bashfully avoids the affection of his adoring female friend while his classmates swoon over summer and the opposite sex. Pope has his eye on his heavenly prize, and about five minutes into the show, he gets it. Yet his cheerful reign, in which he gives sermons comparing humanity to delicious treats like blueberry muffins, is interrupted when an evil archbishop (Scott Hart) plants a false story in the news that the squeaky-clean Pope has had a tawdry affair. His congregation excommunicates Pope, and he sets out on a guilt-ridden journey that gains him loyalists dedicated to helping him reclaim his holy throne.
In Pope, the international institution that is the Vatican is shrunk to the size of a suburban American town. The corrupt journalist who corroborates with the plotting archbishop is Pope’s schoolyard bully. The nun that helps him reclaim the papacy is his childhood sweetheart. This factor is what makes Pope quaint and cute. And also thin.
Tackling an institution like the Vatican in a tongue-in-cheek off-off-Broadway musical leaves room for an interwoven message through humor. I was expecting some commentary on any number of the issues that the Vatican has faced in recent years through the show’s absurd humor, much the way Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (soon opening in a Broadway transfer) did with American politics. Alas, Pope has nothing to say.
So if this musical just wants to have fun, it does that in full. Pope wears a Six Flags t-shirt and references the coasters at the theme park franchise’s New Jersey outlet, Great Adventure (shamelessly giving away the geographic origin of book and lyrics writer Justin Moran). The show is full of dozens of gags and verbal jokes—so many that if you take in a deep breath, you’re sure to miss some. Some are more creative (Pope tells one classmate with Muslim parents, “Tell your parents to text me pictures from Hell!”) and others are visible from miles away (lyric: “It’s dope being the pope!”).
Along with Moran’s predictable lyrics, Christopher Pappas’ music lacks complexity. The archbishop’s number “You Ain’t Never Seen A Pope Like Me” borrows greatly from the chorus of Aladdin’s “You Ain’t Never Had A Friend Like Me.” Despite the winking title, “Duet: In The Mass” is the show’s prettiest number, while “What Would Jesus Do” is the most spirited song of the show, with the company joining in. Despite simple melodies and lyrics, the cast creates wonderful harmonies consistently throughout the show.
The actors really infuse the charm into Pope. With constant energy, they look like they’re having fun with the show. As the archbishop, Hart is delightfully smug and restrained. His character knows he’s smarter than the rest of the buffoons around him, and it shows through his expressions humorously. Nelson is painfully lovable as Pope. His performance remains one-note, yet he nails the adorable child-like head of Catholicism. Many of the actors play multiple roles, and no one does it better than Jonathan Roufaeal, who distinctively embodies the conceited bully, the idiot Cardinal, and prophetic baseball player. He’s also one of the more vocally gifted in the cast.
From neck-snapping nuns to a God who never misses The View, Pope: The Musical is a heap of off-off-Broadway quirk. Yet in working overtime to achieve it’s DIY-musical theme, it forgets that humor is at its best when it’s saying something. So when the cast sings the closing number, “We All Learned Something,” I can’t help but wonder if the same is true for the audience.