Too polished in parts to be truly ironic and too uneven overall to be completely engaging, the Firehouse Theatre Project's “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant” could have been an indistinct muddle if not for a few good performances, one great one and a couple of winning scenes.
Even so, this musical biography of the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard — who was also a physicist, a horticulturist and a science-fiction novelist, as we are told several times — is mostly just odd.
A lot of the weirdness springs from the salient facts of Hubbard's life: his rise from relatively obscure beginnings in Nebraska to the leadership of a lucrative spiritual movement that appeals to Hollywood stars — a movement that constantly dodges charges of being a cult. The inherent oddity is enhanced by having Hubbard's esoteric philosophy presented by a cast of 10 youth ranging from 8 to 17 years old performing cheery songs about “auditing” and “e-meters.”
The result is apparently supposed to resemble a surreal school nativity play, full of deadpan irony and amateurish charm. Maybe that was the effect of the original New York production that used actors only 12 and younger, but the Firehouse show is more like a high-school production of “Godspell” gone awry.
There's certainly charm on display. Dylan Moon plays Hubbard with an endearing smile and a winning nonchalance. Narration is provided with poise and a vibrant voice by Mackenzie Newman. And the youngest members of the cast, the adorable duo of Elinor Jenkins and Sophie Shannon, are sweetly amusing, embodying Hubbard's whacked-out concept of the Reactive Mind and the Analytical Mind.
But vocally, the cast is all over the place, wobbly in some spots and wildly out of tune in others. The primarily techno-rock songs by playwright Kyle Jarrow are serviceable enough but hearing them was hampered by technical difficulties opening night. Between that and the cast's uneven delivery it's difficult to even judge the musical direction of Kim Fox and Leilani Mork.
One shining light throughout the production is Allison Gilman, her performance focused and her characters crisply defined. Her New Yorker was sassy, her Auditor a wickedly whirling dervish and her lost soul Annie downright spooky as she dangles on Hubbard's manipulative strings. The scene with Annie and an energized light-saber dance (choreography by Laine Satterfield) are the highlights of the show. I laughed several times during “Pageant” — particularly at the repeated questions about what the L. in Hubbard's name stands for — but I left the theater scratching my head. S
“A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant” runs through Jan. 18 at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. Tickets are $10-$25. Call 355-2001 or visit www.firehousetheatre.org.