John Paul II musical packs crowd ahead of papal visit

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About 1,500 people flocked to a musical about John Paul II's life, including his years as a student under Nazi rule in Poland, on Wednesday in Madrid on the eve of Pope Benedict XVI's arrival in the city.

The show, called "No Tengais Miedo" or "Fear Not", is bustling with 13 pop songs, dance routines featuring twirling priests and a live orchestra that includes a guitar playing nun in a grey habit.

It voyages from the youth of the then Karol Wojtyla in Nazi-occupied Poland to his triumphant election as the head of the Roman Catholic Church in 1978.

"How can I not tremble before the greatness of this mission that falls in my humble hands," 27-year-old actor Inaki Serrano, who plays the late pope, sings in the final scene of the musical as he wears his white papal robes for the first time.

The musical, which has already played to over 10,000 people during a tour of Spain, was staged in Madrid for the first time at the auditorium of the city's amusement park as part of World Youth Day celebrations that wrap up on Sunday.

Pope Benedict will arrive in Madrid on Thursday at noon to preside over the final four days of the Roman Catholic Church's youth festivities, which are expected to draw over one million pilgrims from around the world.

The script and songs were written by 25-year-old journalist Agueda Lucas at the request of a priest in the central city of Cuenca, Jose Antonio Fernandez.

The non-professional cast is made up of 27 actors, 13 dancers, a choir of 13 singers and an orchestra of 18 musicians who are all from Cuenca.

"We wanted to show our affection for pope John Paul," said Fernandez, 42, who is the director of the musical and who composed the music for two songs.

The show offers an uncritical assessment of the late pope, leaving out controversial topics such as his firm opposition to birth control and abortion.

While most of the action takes place during Nazi Germanys occupation of Poland during the World War II, the show only makes brief allusions to the six-year conflict and its aftermath.

In one scene Wojtyla and his university classmates discuss their fears at the outbreak of the war. In another a friend tells the future pope how several people they both knew ended up in concentration camps.

But the focus is on personal details of Wojtyla's life, such as his struggle to deal with the death of his older brother, his decision to become a priest and his love of theatre.

"I wanted to avoid politics and focus on positive, universal values like friendship and family," said Lucas, the author of the script, when asked about how she depicted the Nazi occupation.

The performance of the musical on Wednesday in Madrid was greeted with rapturous applause throughout from the audience, made mostly of youths taking part in World Youth Day and nuns.

"I did not know much about pope John Paul's life before, now I admire him even more," said Alejandro Pacheco, a 23-year-old student from Mexico City who attended the musical with two friends.

Serrano, the actor who plays the pope, said he believes John Paul "is an example to follow".

"If just one person's faith is reinforced because of the musical, it will have been worth it," he added.

The show, which opened in Cuenca in January, will continue its tour of Spanish cities after its Madrid performance. Organisers hope to put it on in John Paul's hometown of Wadowice next year.

"Where are we going to go with this musical? Wherever God wants. We will not say no to anything," said Fernandez.

John Paul II, who died in 2005 at the age of 84 after a long battle with Parkinson's disease, was the brainchild of World Youth Day, believing it could help revitalise faith among the world's young Catholics.

© 2011 AFP

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