WATERTOWN -- L. Ron Hubbard, or, more accurately, 12-year-old Jacob Rosenbaum, portraying the father of Scientology, gives a high-five to a girl dressed as half a brain. Synthesized music swells behind them, and they join in a song that sounds like the Brady kids performing "Godspell" in their backyard with a script updated by Tina Fey.
"Now the sun will shine," they sing in their best Up With People voices. "And we'll be just fine. Now we have got the science of the mind."
Kyle Jarrow, the author of "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant," is grooving along with this warm, yet somewhat disturbing scene on the sidelines at a rehearsal space in Watertown. He's watching a cast of 8- to 15-year-olds rehearse his script for a Boston Theatre Works production while across the ocean, the world's most famous Scientologist takes wedding vows for a third time. Tom Cruise, for better or worse, may have brought Scientology into the pages of People and Us Weekly. But Jarrow has created a musical about L. Ron Hubbard that is, in its own sardonic way, much more funny and touching than any of Cruise's diatribes against Ritalin. It starts previews at the Boston Center for the Arts tonight.
Jarrow, a 27-year-old New York-based rock musician and playwright, penned the Obie award-winning "Scientology Pageant" three years ago after Alex Timbers, head of the experimental New York troupe Les Freres Corbusier, came to him with a suggestion to write a show starring children -- and making it a musical about the Church of Scientology.
The result is much like a traditional Christmas pageant, only the baby is born in a manger in Nebraska and goes on to become a teacher, author, explorer, atomic physicist, choreographer, and finally head of an organization based around positive thought.
While the musical has fun with some of Hubbard's more fanciful endeavors, such as his science fiction writings and beliefs, "Pageant" is primarily a deadpan presentation, by dancing, singing kids, of Hubbard's life story and how he formed the Church of Scientology around a theory of embracing the "analytical mind" and rejecting the "reactive mind."
Jarrow, who majored in religious studies at Yale, confesses that he knew little about Scientology before he started researching the subject. But in an interview after rehearsal, it's clear that he gave the topic much thought and has respect for individuals who practice Scientology, though he does not agree with the practices of the organization.
"It's an important topic in a lot of ways," he says. "It's a show about belief and the way that people turn to religion to fill the emptiness in their lives. There are good and bad sides to it. I think religion can do great things for people. But it can also fill a hole that your individuality should fill. It makes perfect sense to have kids involved. The fact is we're all searching for answers, and there's a certain childlike quality to most religions."
Controversy struck the New York production when, according to press reports, the president of the Church of Scientology of New York sent a letter of protest. Gerard Renna, president of the Boston church, said recently by phone that the musical "is not something we're addressing" and that he is focused instead on humanitarian efforts and antidrug education.
Detractors complain that children are being used in roles they do not understand. But Jarrow becomes animated explaining that in the New York and Los Angeles productions, it was important for the creative team to work with the young cast to help them understand what they were performing.
"I'd say the biggest issue that we dealt with wasn't kids learning lines or choreography," he says, rustling his nest of blond hair. "It was talking to them about what they were doing. It's really important. Kids shouldn't just be saying things that they don't understand. That's what we're criticizing . . . people who just parrot behavior and language. We wanted to have an honest conversation with them."
"The show is an interesting way to look at things," says seventh-grader Rosenbaum, who plays Hubbard. "Because it's in the form of a nativity pageant, and I'm Jewish, I don't really do nativity. So I've learned about all kinds of new things. I'm a Jew playing a Scientologist who also thinks he's Jesus. So I'm a triple threat."
In the course of his research, Jarrow learned about the music of Scientology. Hubbard released an album called "The Road to Freedom" in 1986. It's a collection of pop songs performed by John Travolta, Leif Garrett, Frank Stallone, Chick Correa, and Karen Black, with lyrics written by Hubbard.
"I was trying to find out what is the liturgical music of Scientology," Jarrow says. "And the liturgical music of Scientology is 1980s pop, which seems strangely appropriate because of the science fiction books. So that's what we did [in the show]. It's a pastiche of synth-pop and pageant choir music."
He savors the kitsch factor of the songs, but prefers the glam-rock music he makes with his own band, the Fabulous Entourage, which he compares to the B-52's, Talking Heads, and Scissor Sisters. He is also branching out into emo for a new musical he is writing about teenage romance. "Love Kills" was commissioned by Boston Theatre Works and will be workshopped here beginning next month.
"Kyle submitted his first play to us in 2002," says Jason Southerland, artistic director of BTW. "We hit it off immediately when we met him. It was like a good first date."
Last spring, the company produced Jarrow's rock musical "Gorilla Man" as a late night show to introduce the playwright's work to Boston audiences. Southerland says he is drawn to satire, which is why he is particularly fond of "Scientology Pageant."
"Kyle told me that the version we're doing here is actually much darker than the New York version," says Southerland. "But that's our aesthetic."
Southerland says complaints about the production have been limited to a few disgruntled e-mails so far, but he has stories of a BTW staff member getting trapped in an extended lecture at the local Scientology building.
For all the controversy, Jarrow's musical actually goes much deeper than one might imagine.
"I started understanding that there's some really profound things about the Church of Scientology," Jarrow says. "It answers questions we all have. But I think it can be taken too far. That's what I'm trying to explore in this show. I mean, it's a great concept. But my hope is once you get them into the theater, people have an experience that's a little more complex and thought-provoking than they expected."
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.