Kids’ stuff

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant

11/28/2006 2:48:41 PM

As the world’s most famous Scientologist honeymoons in the Maldives, junior-bird-man havoc is being wreaked on Tom Cruise’s ideology of choice. The Obie-winning one-hour musical A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant (presented by Boston Theatre Works at the BCA Plaza Theatre through December 24) subjects L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the religion, to an away-in-a-manger treatment by an enthusiastic group of children whose mother’s milk must have been 1980s pop and who tell the great man’s story with a collective straight face. Yes, that’s right, actual kids in purple choir robes and other bits and pieces of church-basement costume, singing, boogieing, and otherwise celebrating Hubbard’s epic life — reduced here to a cartoon travelogue of questioning, self-discovery, and fervent exploitation of the lost.

The satire itself is far from sophisticated, and the songs make Godspell sound like Sondheim. If this show were performed by adults, or by adults playing children, it would just be a goof. That the mock-worshipful send-up of a power-of-positive-thinking guru who some would argue made a mint by offering pseudo-scientific spiritual guidance to the vulnerable is performed, with a mix of art and artlessness, by a geeky crew of kids is what gives it its edge. So it’s hard to know whether to give greater credit to Kyle Jarrow, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics, or Alex Timbers, who hatched the concept. Whichever, the pair came up with a sublimely silly, stealthily scathing hour of power that in Jason Southerland’s production is the most holiday fun to come our way since the Grinch.

Scientology Pageant first saw the light of day three years ago when it was produced Off Broadway by Les Frères Corbusier; it went on to win a 2004 Obie and ruffle the feathers of the head of the Church of Scientology of New York. (That doubtless sold more tickets.) Performed on and around yellow bleachers before some red curtains and hanging snowflakes, the show deploys an ensemble of eight kids ranging in age from 8 to 15. (The original New York cast were 8-to-12, which would work better; there’s one young lady here who dispenses her task of enacting a lonely young woman co-opted by Scientology with an apt mix of sadness and zombie-ism, but she looks ready for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire whereas the others are still Sorcerer’s Stone material.) After bouncing through an upbeat opener and squabbling over which of them will play L. Ron (pronounced “El-Ron,” conjuring up Elrond from The Lord of the Rings), the kids do indeed bop on bearing a little manger. Crouching behind it, his face in the straw, smiles 12-year-old Jacob Rosenbaum as L. Ron entering the world in 1911 in Tilden, Nebraska (already wearing braces). And the sacrilege doesn’t stop there.

Of course, Hubbard never claimed to be God — though he dabbled in just about everything but deity, as this informative albeit irreverent biographical frolic points out, engaging in repeated recitations of its subject’s occupations, from atomic physicist and science-fiction author to horticulturist and choreographer. (There’s even a sci-fi interlude, complete with planetary cutouts and neon-light effects, based on Hubbard’s thesis that thetan spirits entered earthlings after being banished here by an evil galactic ruler.) Sophie Rich, in tinsel halo, wings, lace-trimmed socks, and sneakers, narrates most of the tale. An accomplished singer/actress with a résumé as long as your arm, Rich, for all her experience, exudes the proud, buoyant amateurism that Southerland foxily builds into the endeavor, right down to a chaotic curtain call in which the kids seem not sure just what to do — after which the show bursts back into life, venturing into the aisles to get the audience clapping along to the catchy hootenanny strains of “When you’re feeling pain/Say his name/There is no other/L. Ron Hubbard!” If some of the cast members come more easily to the rough-edged, hi-mom spontaneity, all navigate quite well the show’s clever course of enthused unsophistication.

There is a point to A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, apart from just sending up Scientology by reducing its tenets to a childlike cataloguing of reactive-mind-banishing, past-pain-purging, positive-thinking pabulum doused with smily-faced song and dance. Jarrow says he does not find the belief system to be without merit. (Still, don’t be surprised if you hear there’s been a Scientology fatwa issued against the author/composer.) What seems to creep him out is the church’s cultish tendency to isolate its believers, replacing their individuality with passivity, slathering their need to ask difficult questions with a balm of easy answers. The pageant’s gang of kids, having graduated from what Hubbard calls “pre-clear” to “clear,” appear sporting masks of one another — as if they’d become interchangeable. Scientology may or may not do that to you. But Scientology Pageant definitely does not. Here are eight individual performing personalities marching rag-tag to a hilariously questionable tune.

Copyright © 2006 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group