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Chicago by John Olson

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant
A Red Orchid Theatre

Also see John's reviews of How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found and High Holidays

A Christmas Carol
Aria Szalai-Raymond, Chaz Allen
and Jaiden Fallo

The show's long title tells you what to expects—a skewering of children's holiday pageants, the Church of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, performed by children. It may be more of a surprise to see how bitingly funny it is and just how good the mostly pre-teen performers are at delivering the satire. The show, originally performed Off-Broadway around the holidays in 2003/2004, provides a 60-minute biography of Hubbard, the nuclear physicist/naval officer/science fiction writer/choreographer/founder of Scientology (and many other job titles I can't remember), complete with three quite catchy songs by the show's composer/lyricist/bookwriter Kyle Jarrow (working from a concept by Alex Timber).

The young performers are all members of "A Red Orchid Theatre Youth Ensemble," and already have some pretty impressive resumes. As directed by Steve Wilson, the cast has found just the perfect tone for the piece—balancing the unquestioning tone of kids in a religious pageant with just enough of a wink to let the audience know the cast is really in on the joke. It begins with the "Angelic Girl" (11-year-old Najwa Brown) singing about the need to stay positive during the dark and depressing winter. In taking the lead on this opening number, "It's a Happy Day," Miss Brown is already a powerful belter who could have a pretty wonderful career ahead of her. Hubbard's birth—not in a manger, but in a humble rural town in Nebraska—is given the full nativity treatment. Hubbard is played, as he was in Red Orchid's production last year, by Chaz Allen, who gives the leader a heroic quality just shy of cartoonish, and holds the stage as its central figure capably. We see Hubbard's early travels and schooling—including a stay at George Washington University in which he was instructed by George Washington himself—yes, the one on the dollar bills. Hubbard's search for the meaning of life is detailed up through a World War II battle staged in slow-motion reminiscent of any number of war films.

Hubbard's evolution from writer of sci-fi novels to religious philosopher is complete when he develops his philosophy of Dianetics, which will become the basis of Scientology. Dianetics posits that the feeling function of the brain—we'd call it the right-brain, he calls it the "reactive brain"—must be overcome so that we can use the other side—the "analytical brain"—to make more rational decisions and become happier. The theory is explained in a song called "Science of the Mind," performed by the "Analytical Brain" (Kara Ryan) and the "Reactive Brain" (Elenna Sindler), outfitted in two giant brain costumes designed by Karen Kawa that begin as one and are later separated. The process of separating the two—called auditing—is demonstrated with the help of puppets resembling those in Avenue Q. The purpose is to identify past painful experiences—Hubbard called them "engrams"—that produce stress and lead to irrational behavior. Sounds sort of Freudian and mainstream enough, but Hubbard went further to suggest that all humans are a collection of "thetans"—souls brought to Earth by the alien Xenu, the dictator of the Galactic Confederacy.

Later, when Donald (Alex Turner), whose life was saved at sea during the war by Hubbard, returns as an IRS agent, Hubbard is charged with tax evasion. At trial, celebrity Scientology followers called as defense witnesses include a Saturday Night Feverish John Travolta (Adam Rebora), Kirstie Alley (Paola Antoinette Lehman, in a huge fat suit) and of course Tom Cruise (Rebora), accompanied by puppets playing wife Katie Holmes and infant daughter Siri. The cast, most of whom play multiple roles and who all perform like real troupers, also includes Jaiden Fallo, Elitia Ernsteen, Aria Szalai-Raymond and Katherine Jordan. Though the case is made that some medical professionals find the practice of Scientology to be damaging rather than helpful to mental health, even leading to suicide in some cases, Hubbard and followers happily leave the courtroom following the end of the trial, reprising "It's a Happy Day."

The proceedings are played out on a nursery-school-like set designed by John Wilson that includes a grid of boxes and windows. Though the material drags a bit in places, the young actors' energy never does. They nicely execute the snazzy steps and hand motions by choreographer Ann Filmer and sing the show's songs quite professionally under the music direction of Brandon Magid.

As the title says, and the stagebill elucidates, the production "is in no way affiliated with or endorsed by the Church of Scientology or any organization other than A Red Orchid Theatre." Those who do support that Church will find this "pageant" less entertaining than those who agree with the show's point-of-view, but perhaps any Scientologists who catch it can still cheer for the talented young thetan/thespians on stage performing it in great musical comedy fashion.

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant will be performed Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 5 and 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm, through January 17, 2010 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1521 N.Wells St., Chicago. Tickets available at www.aredorchidtheatre.com, at the box office, or by phone at 312-943-8722.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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