Off-Broadway Review: “The Cadaver Synod: A Pope Musical” at the New York Musical Festival

Joseph Verlezza

Is it serious or a joke, a love story, a punk rock pseudo opera or possibly a retro piece paying homage to the irreverent, sensational pop musicals of the seventies, which were usually found playing in the then edgy East Village? The fact is it could be all the above, but the problem is, it executes none of them with any inkling of panache. The first act is mostly composed of punk rock electronic music with the actors screaming lyrics that are almost impossible to hear or understand and out of control choreography derivative of Bill T. Jones on a very bad day. The second act reverts to a more traditional musical theatre approach without rhyme or reason but fairs no better in the music and lyrics department. This hodgepodge musical offering goes by the title “The Cadaver Synod: A Pope Musical” with book, music and lyrics by Robbie Florian.

This production never reaches a level of professionalism despite the successful creative elements provided by Daryl A. Stone’s costumes and Kevan Loney’s scenic projections. The result merely appears as a lurid and pretentious attempt to marry an inferior book with unpleasant derivative music and banal lyrics.

Act 1 of this new musical is loosely based on the actual historic event called the Cadaver Synod. Pope Stephen VII exhumed the corpse of Pope Formosus and put it on trial assigning a young deacon to defend and speak for the seated skeleton clad in papal attire. The crime was that of seeking the papacy and ruling in two different regions as a Bishop. The verdict is guilty, the corpse is stripped of his vestments and the three fingers used to bestow blessing as a pope were dismembered. This was all done for political reasons and power. The story is good substance for the stage, being both interesting and bizarre. In this production, the story is diminished by minor deviation of the actual events and is overpowered by the music and the manic choreography.

The real departure occurs in Act 2 when the book takes a wrong turn in substantiating the reasons for the event that takes place previously. It is proposed that it was an act of vengeance that led Pope Stephen VII on the mission to posthumously defrock Pope Formosus. The book alleges that the two had a homosexual relationship which Pope Formosus denies while lying in bed together after a simulated sexual act. He explains it is a grave sin the pope could never commit and therefore Stephen ostensibly must be a woman because of his role in the activity. This leads to the demise of the relationship and the skepticism of the validity of the story. It gets worse and basically things fall apart.

This present production comes off as a sensational, vulgar tabloid story supported by aggressive, loud electronic music that diminishes the contextual content of the event and at times sabotages the vocal ability of the of the cast.



The cast includes Charnette Batey, John Paul Cardenas, Brad Greer, Richard Jarrett, Kate Ferber, David Larsen, Evan Maltby, Jeremy Pasha, Sarah Beth Pfeifer, Ethan Gabriel Riordan, Staci Stout, Forest VanDyke, and Noah Zachary.

The creative team includes Nate Bertone (Set Designer), Ryan Hauenstein (Lighting Designer), Daryl Stone (Costume Designer), Kevan Loney (Projection Design), Marte Ekhougen (Puppet Design), Jenny Ainsworth (Production Stage Manager), Abbie Betts (Assistant Stage Manager), and Lisa Dozier King

(General Manager). Production photos by Russ Rowland.

The production will run through Sunday, July 23, 2017 at 1:00 p.m. at The Acorn Theater at Theatre Row, located at 410 West 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th Avenues on the south side of 42nd Street). General Admission tickets are $29.75. For reservations and information (including cast and creative team) visit or call 212-352-3101. Running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.

Photo: David Larsen as Pope Stephen VII. Credit: Russ Rowland.