Pope Joan, Mercury Theater. Christopher Moore’s musical, which premiered last year at Bailiwick Repertory, returns in a commercial production from Michael Butler, the onetime wunderkind who, with director Tom O’Horgan, made Hair a Broadway hit. But with Moore serving as director as well as composer-librettist, the results are far from Hair-y. Based on the legend of a medieval woman who worked her way up the ladder of the church until she unexpectedly gave birth during a procession and her gender was revealed, the show flirts with hot-button themes–women’s ordination, homosexuality–but never comes to grips with them.

A solid pop craftsman, Moore is a naive dramatist painfully prone to cliche and contrivance. He drowns Joan’s two key relationships–with Emperor Louis II, who loves her as a woman, and with her gay disciple Lucius, who loves her as a man–in soap-opera kitsch, which robs the drama of any emotional credibility. Exacerbating the problem are the lead performances. Elizabeth Laidlaw’s dull, wooden Joan totally lacks the vibrancy Kate Fry brought to the role last year, while TV actor Scott Brush overplays Louis: his mugging would be better suited to a bus-and-truck Cats.

Mildly diverting in the original production, Pope Joan has acquired a stately, somber tone that doesn’t solve the writing’s fundamental flaws. “What should be done with the multiple legends of a female pope commonly called Joan?” asks Moore in a program note. Well, something more interesting than this.

–Albert Williams