Couldn’t score a wedding invitation to Bracciano? Don’t fret. You can catch up with Tom, Katie and even little Suri, not to mention get a crash course in the life and teachings of L. Ron Hubbard in “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant.” A cult hit during its premiere run in New York in 2003, the singing-dancing Dianetics saga starring a delightful bunch of grade-schoolers was instrumental in putting inventive experimental troupe Les Freres Corbusier on the map. Back in an updated version, the breezy one-hour show is equal parts adorable and creepy, hilarious and unsettling, making it way more compelling than your average holiday entertainment.
Les Freres specializes in defiantly nerdy, irony-drenched productions that turn important subject matter into goofy self-satire. The droll wit, faux scholarliness and deadpan presentation of the company’s shows aim them squarely at a hipper-than-thou downtown crowd. They have tackled urban planning in “Boozy: The Life, Death and Subsequent Vilification of Le Corbusier and, More Importantly, Robert Moses”; domestic entrapment, pairing Ibsen with automatons in “Heddatron”; and evangelical retribution in “Hell House.”
The cute but clever gimmick that makes “Scientology” such a hoot is its harnessing of the wide-eyed naivety of children to comment on people’s willingness to embrace even the most seemingly crackpot theories in exchange for promises of self-empowerment.
Skepticism is voiced at every juncture of Hubbard’s rise from precocious Midwestern student to teacher, author, explorer, atomic physicist, nautical engineer, choreographer, horticulturalist and founding father of a worldwide church that earns stratospheric revenues from its member fees. But, as befits a doctrine based on the supremacy of positive thought, all questions are brushed aside with simplistic jargon and a reassuring smile.
At a time when faith-based political opinion has never held more sway in America, the unwavering convictions being satirized here make the humor more than a little unnerving. This darker aspect, evident particularly in the show’s chilling final images, makes the jokey-seeming enterprise more provocative than the blunt derision of the infamous “South Park” episode.
To anyone impervious to the lure of Dianetics, watching doe-eyed tykes expound on engrams, the C-Org, preclears and e-meters (the workings of which are demonstrated in a puppet show) will be funny even without the arched eyebrows implicit in this venture.
The sci-fi back story of intergalactic upheaval involving alien ruler Xenu and disembodied souls called thetans clearly lends itself to presentation as a children’s fantasy. Add in saccharine songs set to cheesy synth-keyboard backing and featuring sublimely clunky dance breaks and the whole thing is pretty much irresistible.
Director-choreographer Alex Timbers, who also came up with the concept (Kyle Jarrow penned the book, music and lyrics) wryly adopts every endearing awkwardness of amateur kids’ holiday productions right down to the chaotic blocking, fluffed lines and over-emphatic gesticulation.
David Evans Morris’ set is a naif psychedelic sci-fi backdrop enlivened with amusing props (a waving cardboard palm frond for Hawaii, a street sign and cell phones for New York), while Jennifer Rogien’s costumes (ceremonial robes with candy-colored, striped knee-highs) seem like something stitched together by doting mothers late at night. The cardboard-and-tin foil robot outfit and diminutive Xenu’s Endora cape are particular triumphs. There’s even the obligatory tinsel-haloed angel.
The disquieting concept of the human mind separated into its analytical and reactive sides — the latter to be jettisoned along with debilitating emotions — is illustrated in elementary, kid-friendly fashion via an upholstered lump of brain matter worn by momentarily conjoined kids.
The mostly preteen cast (aged 8-13) is the perfect antidote to the zealously ingratiating junior performers often trotted out in Broadway shows. The “Pageant” kids are sufficiently self-aware to belong on a stage but innocent enough not to kill the joke. William Wiggins makes a far-from-humble Hubbard, asking life’s big questions with mock earnestness and gradually acquiring a hint of sinister knowingness.
Naturally, celebrity disciples make an appearance. John Travolta reveals how Scientology fueled his cool; Kirstie Alley tells how it helped her conquer drug addiction, “enabling me to star in the fine television series ‘Fat Actress’ and to promote the quality products of weight loss expert Jenny Craig”; and Tom Cruise introduces sock-puppet incarnations of his new wife and daughter. Handling duties for the entire Cruise family, Sean Moran has mega-wattage charisma to rival the role he’s playing. He’s the most natural charmer of a disarming bunch.