Just what is Scientology?
Or not. It all depends on what you're willing to believe.
Director Lee Ann Etzold, perhaps better known as one of the founders of and principal performers with New Paradise Laboratories, directs a cast of children in this musical journey that begins at the miraculous birth of the baby savior L. Ron and continues for eternity - well, for the next 50 minutes anyway.
The play, by Kyle Jarrow, requires kids to play all the roles, but because its content is presented so earnestly, and its musical numbers are so catchy and entrancing, it might do to explain to young audience members beforehand the true meaning of irony.
Sets are auditorium-ready, with big, curvy white clouds in a bright blue sky. Costumes include a cardboard-box robot and creamy choral gowns. A Schoolhouse Rock-style explanation of the battle between the "analytic" (reasoning) and "reactive" (emotional) minds leads one character to ask, "Aren't emotions what make us human?" To which the adorable 10-year-old David Bulack as Hubbard replies with vigor, "No, emotions make us weak!"
It's also easy to get lost among all the church's jargon, and once confused, you're primed to become the kind of vulnerable person who might be willing to pay big bucks to absorb a low current from an e-meter and aspire to free your inner Thetan.
Haven't heard about Thetans yet? Suffice it to say Hubbard made his name as a pulp writer of science fiction, and really just expanded the brand.
Etzold's hand skillfully guides her young charges through some treacherous waters. After all, it can't be easy explaining the difference between religious tolerance and just plain gullibility, and when you've been taught things like "the Lord said to Noah he's gonna build an ark-y ark-y," it all seems pretty nuts.
But somehow the production emerges triumphant, retaining its innocent sense of inquiry and buoyant good humor while making some pretty serious philosophical points.
Because of its complexity (and possibly also because of its notoriously litigious subjects), you won't see this musical making the elementary school circuit anytime soon, but maybe it should. Critical thinking is an underrated skill; encourage it enough, and it just might catch on.
A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant
Book, lyrics and music by Kyle Jarrow, directed by Lee Ann Etzold, scenery by Michael Alltop, Scott Cassidy, Katharine Clark Gray, and Lee Ann Etzold, costumes by Natalia de la Torre, sound by Andrew Lipke, lighting by Peter Escalada-Mastick.
Cast: Madeline Egan Addis (Angelic Girl), David Bulack (L. Ron Hubbard), Carmelo D'Angelo (Father, Reactive Mind, Tom Cruise), Frances Distefano (New Yorker, Xenu, John Travolta), Nala Johnson (Mother, Pre-Clear, Analytical Mind, Annie), Noel Lopez (Cow, E-Meter, Robot Child), Rachel Meirson (Hawaiian, Hollywood Starlet, Kirstie Alley).
Playing at: St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Sts., Philadelphia. Through Sunday, Dec. 30. Tickets: $12 to $20. Information: 215-627-2577 or www.BratProductions.org.