A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant (Review)

Know Theatre's new holiday show is deadpan and satirical

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It’s the time of year when theater companies present shows that veer from their routine fare in hopes of selling lots of tickets to fund subsequent productions more aligned with their mission. So perhaps I should be charitable in this season of good feelings when a group like Know Theatre presents A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, a tongue-in-cheek, 50-minute musical performed by adolescents and directed by Jeff Groh.

Presenting the story of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and the fundamental precepts of his church as interpreted by kids doing a reverent holiday skit, Scientology Pageant is both deadpan and satirical. It’s also a tad mystifying.

Hubbard (1911-1986) is an almost mythical figure: As the cast reminds us at several intervals, he had multiple careers — as a science-fiction novelist, screenwriter, horticulturist, choreographer and spiritual leader. His 1950 book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health became the core of a positive-thought philosophy that evolved into the Church of Scientology.

The kids in the cast of Scientology Pageant include Ben Langhorst, 15, who plays Hubbard. He has a sweet voice and truly seems to “get” most of Hubbard’s fundamentals. With nine others, ranging in age from 11 to 16, Langhorst outlines Scientology’s core beliefs in the distilled, simplified, worshipful and unquestioning manner typified by holiday entertainments.

Composer-lyricist Kyle Jarrow has created a handful of Rock-styled show tunes that earnestly describe some of Scientology’s precepts. Liz Vosmeier choreographs the presentation with cheesy, over-the-top enthusiasm. (“Hey! It’s a Happy Day!” opens the show; “Science of the Mind” tells us “Now the sun will shine, now we’ll be just fine.”)

Know backs the singers with recorded accompaniment that sometimes overwhelms young voices of varying strength. Perhaps that’s a given in a pseudo-pageant, but it renders virtually unintelligible segments like the campy retelling of Scientology’s “space opera” by a robotic narrator and the embodiment of galactic dictator Xenu who purportedly brought humans to earth.

Scientology Pageant originated in a 2003 New York production that used kids aged 8-12. That might have worked better than Know’s often gawky and self-conscious cast. There is a kind of humor in their silly, earnest delivery, but even with just 50 minutes of performance it feels overlong and often forced.

I don’t expect Scientology Pageant to appeal to younger kids. With its blend of intentionally amateurish humor (shadow and hand puppets, props like a tiny fake boat in which Hubbard travels the world) and dry, unsmiling irony, the show seems aimed at smart high-schoolers and hip college students. Too often, however, the approach falls flat or feels at odds with the cheerful overlay of storytelling.

Know’s 2008-09 productions are promoted in a dual-purpose program and season brochure with photos of kids in adult roles, perhaps a nod to a show like Scientology Pageant or to the fall’s earlier piece of satire, Reefer Madness: The Musical. I am eager to see Know challenge its performers with works that move beyond the shallow scripts they seem to have gravitated toward. (Indeed, productions planned for the season’s second half include more adult fare, especially a relatively new script by award-winning writer Sarah Ruhl.)

I’ll give them a pass for the holidays, but I hope Know reclaims its reputation as a theater where edgy material grabs you by the throat. Enough of this silliness.

A VERY MERRY UNAUTHORIZED CHILDREN’S SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT, presented by Know Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Dec. 28. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.

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