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A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Monday Nov 27, 2006

Ever wonder what the "L" in L. Ron Hubbard stands for? Unless you’re Tom Cruise (or another follower of Scientology) you likely never have; but the answer to that question makes for one of the more hilarious moments in A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, the delightful musical biography that provides answers to everything you ever wanted to know about the Scientology founder but were afraid to ask, and does so with snarky impudence.

The brainchild of Alex Timbers, who directed its initial New York production three years ago, and Kyle Jarrow, who provides the book and score, this hour-long show is conceived as a children’s pageant - the kind-of show you might see in a church school basement or gym this time of the year; but instead of Christ’s story, substitute that of Hubbard, who founded the Church of Scientology in 1952 after the success of Dianetics, his self-help best-seller two years before.

Hubbard, it is explained, was an author, explorer, atomic physicist, nautical engineer, choreographer and horticulturalist - a Renaissance man (so to speak,) at least in the eyes of these children who tell his story in a deadpan manner from source material largely gathered from the Church of Scientology’s texts. And it is this contrast between the children’s innocence and the Church’s spin on Hubbard’s life that makes the show such cheeky fun. Seeing Hubbard’s literary achievements - novels like Sea Fangs, The Carnival of Death, and Man-Killers of the Air - paraded across the stage in large, kid’s-styled cardboard signs makes them look even sillier than they are. And to hear the explanation of the religion’s science-fiction roots, replete with space age costumes that look as if they were leftover from Halloween, only underscore the ridiculousness of such a premise to which to base a religion.

The show may seem like a one-joke affair, but as performed by this talented cast of 8 - all under the age of 16 - it will likely leave you wanting it to go on (How often does that happen in the theater these days?) Wouldn’t a number about Katie Holmes’s "silent birth" be fitting? And why no mention of Battleship Earth, the floppo John Travolta epic that the Church of Scientology helped finance? No matter - what Timbers and Jarrow choose to focus on manages to skewer the tenets of the religion, as well as the life of its founder, with a surprising lack of mean-spiritedness. There’s something about the cheerful, Up With People-like style of the musical numbers, the production’s home-made look, and the earnest amateurness of its performers that makes it so beguiling. It’s difficult to imagine a more fun hour of theater this holiday season.

As staged by Jason Southerland, the production makes the most of its cheesy, cheery production elements, which include a painted cardboard replica of the Church’s emblem and such props as the Electropsychometer, a way of measuring emotional responses that’s key in understanding the religion’s concept of controlling emotions through scientific principles. Wisely Southerland allows his young actors to play it straight, which keeps the mugging at a minimum and makes the material far more palatable than it would be in adult hands, which is an achievement considering how smarmy some of Jarrow’s songs prove to be. (Sample lyric: "Now the sun will shine,/Now we’ll be just fine./We have got the science of the mind.")

Of the performers, Sophie Rich is wonderfully upbeat as the angel who pretty much supervises the telling of the tale, and Jacob Rosenbaum plays L. Ron Hubbard with a requisite lack of irony. Laura Morell has the show’s weightiest number - a confession by a Scientology convert, and she pulls it with deft understatement; and each of the remaining cast members (Gianna Beniers, Kayleigh Cyr, Connor Doherty, Sasha MacDonald, and Matthew Scott Robertson) shine either as in solo comic bits or as part of the ensemble. Their presence is one of the reasons why the show works so well; the other is the smart execution of its irresistible concept. Who would have thought that the life of this controversial figure would have the makings of an instant cult classic?

Presented by Boston Theatre Works. Through December 16 at Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Theater, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA 02116. Schedule: Wednesday/Thursday at 7:30pm; Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm; and Sunday at 5pm. Tickets: $22.00-$28.00. 617-933-8600. For more information, visit Boston Theatre Works website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgepublications.com.