Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
It seems nowadays that there are as many alternative holiday theater options each December as there are traditional fare, maybe even more. However, few can claim to be as non-traditional as the satirical A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant. Know Theatre of Cincinnati presents a worthwhile production of this odd little musical comedy, though one can't help but wish that both the music and the comedy were better.
A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant uses the format of the typical holiday school program, but instead of the students performing the story of Jesus or singing Christmas carols, they present a rather straightforward history of L. Ron Hubbard and the formation of Scientology. This 50-minute show mirrors the style, length and look of a normal December kids' program, but the subject matter is decidedly different.
The show has book, music and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow, based on a concept by Alex Timbers. Though Scientology seems exceedingly ripe for spoofing, with its new age eccentricities and stated origins steeped in mystical alien creation, Mr. Jarrow's take derives mostly straight from the actual beliefs and quoted history from the "religion" itself. The result is laughter at the lunacy of Scientology and not through mockery of it. This approach has its pluses and minuses. It allows for a fairly sincere presentation of the material, which is what such children's pageants are all about. And, it's much harder for the "church" to rally against the piece since it uses their own words and declarations. However, one has to believe that a significantly higher level of hilarity could have been mined from the material if by having an outsider commenting on what they were seeing or by some other means. And, even though the songs serve the show capably, they aren't especially memorable or distinguished in either words or melody.
As usual, Know Theatre provides a solid and entertaining mounting. Director Jeff Groh sets an appropriate tone and pace, and uses the performance space particularly well. The use of shadow puppets against the seven hung sheets that encompass the back wall of the stage adds to the staging. Choreographer Liz Vosmeier has created aptly amateurish dances perfectly suited to such holiday school programs.
The ten-member cast consists of one adult and nine middle school and high school age performers. The ensemble comes across as appropriately eager and earnest, and performs admirably all around. Grown-up Ayla Ocasio is an energetic narrator, and Ben Langhorst handles the large role of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard with excellent timing, strong vocals, and an honesty that is essential to conveying the principles of the "religion" which the character would possess.
Andrew Hungerford's simple multi-level set makes great use of trap doors and the hung sheets, but lacks the tacky decorations and festive atmosphere found in many a holiday show. The lighting (also by Mr. Hungerford) has too much backlighting, leaving the actors' faces in shadow too often, and costumes by Laura Franzini are a bit too casual for a school program.
Despite the feeling that the show itself should have been better, Know Theatre of Cincinnati deserves kudos for doing well in giving local audiences a winning production that marks the show's regional premiere, and in providing some young actors with the chance to shine. A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant isn't especially merry, and though it does create some laughs, you might leave wishing for more.
A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant runs through December 28, 2008. Call (513) 300-KNOW for tickets or more information, or visit www.knowtheatre.com.-- Scott Cain