By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Seesawing between vicious satire and fawning tribute, A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant offers a disarmingly funny lesson in the finer points of Dianetics. Directed by Jaime Castañeda and performed by eight cute kid actors at Fort Worth's Circle Theatre, the show takes a mere 55 minutes and 11 songs to sketch the life of L. Ron Hubbard and to expose the "sacred literature" and questionable practices of Hollywood's pet New Age religion.
A few snowflakes appear on Mark Evan Walker's chalkboard set, but this musical by Kyle Jarrow (from an idea by Alex Timbers) is basically "Springtime for L. Ron." It makes crafty use of children's wide-eyed innocence as they chirp and giggle through the dark history of a secretive church that some say drives members into debt with financial demands and employs nefarious "black ops" to harass critics.
The show unfolds in the awkward, endearing style of a Sunday school nativity play (the church basement ambience is enhanced by Circle's underground acting space). Performances are bright but ragged, with kids jumping in and out of a "let's play dress-up" mishmash of costume pieces designed by Barbara C. Cox. The intentional impression is that it's all been slammed together in a hurry. That's also part of the joke as the show playfully dissects a carefully constructed belief system based on "thetans," "engrams" and a space alien named Xenu who dropped A-bombs into volcanoes a billion years ago and caused all of mankind's problems.
You can't make that stuff up—Hubbard did. And AVMUCSP is smart to parrot Scientology's own doctrine word for wacky word. (To fact-check the Xenu story, just look to YouTube, where dozens of testimonials to the church's weird mythology have been posted in protest by unhappy former members.)
Told fairy-tale fashion onstage, Scientology's history and rituals are hilarious when they're not horrifying. Hubbard's "analytical" and "reactive" minds (the basis of Dianetics) are illustrated by kids in beige balloon "brains." Acting out the bizarre process of emotion-numbing involved in going "clear" (the Scientology equivalent of being "saved"), the cast uses a toy "e-meter" that probably works about as well as a real one. "Just don't ask questions," they sing, "and everything is clear!"
The kids also play IRS agents who take Hubbard (played in terrific deadpan by Cayman Mitchell) to court to challenge his tax-exempt status. That leads to the funniest bit as Hubbard cross-examines Scientology acolytes John Travolta (Logan Kirkendoll) and Kirstie Alley (McKenna Booth). She credits Scientology for kicking her coke habit and "enabling me to star in the fine television series Fat Actress and to promote the quality products of weight loss expert Jenny Craig."
Then comes Tom Cruise (played by George Paddock), testifying to the self-empowerment he gained from Scientology. Wife Katie Holmes and daughter Suri appear at his side, portrayed, appropriately, by expressionless sock puppets. "She's real!" Cruise says of Suri. "I swear!"
First presented in 2003 by Off-Off-Broadway company Les Frères Corbusier, AVMUCSP was threatened with legal action by the notoriously litigious church. But the word "unauthorized" in the title made the script sue-proof. And it's not libel or slander if it's all true. The cleverest twist in the show is that not a critical word ever is uttered against Hubbard or the church. These kids love L. Ron! Clearly!
Scenic designer Randel Wright, in-house set creator at Dallas Children's Theater, has done some of his best work yet for Madeline's Christmas, a charming new 90-minute musical adaptation (directed by Nancy Schaeffer) of writer-illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans' stories about the little French schoolgirl.
Using Bemelmans' pale blue and yellow palette, Wright has turned the stage of the Baker Theater into a three-dimensional storybook. The fun is in the extra touches that so richly bring the set to life: plates and cups magically stacking themselves on the sideboard; the crisp line of dorm beds where Madeline's schoolmates and a talking mouse named Martin recuperate from flu.
Stuck at school, the girls are sad to be away from home on Christmas. Until, that is, resourceful Madeline (played with real pluck by young Colleen Breen at the performance reviewed) buys a dozen flying carpets from a visitor named Harsha (David Lugo). Voilà! Transportation home for everyone.
And here's where Wright really goes to town—to Paris, actually. Perched on their rugs, the girls appear to soar into the night sky over the City of Light. The Eiffel Tower comes into view, and then they fly up and away. There's no use trying to explain the spectacular effect Wright achieves in this sequence. Go see for yourself. Madeline's Christmas is a lovely ride.
Need a little Christmas right this very minute? It's easy to find on local stages.
For the 27th year, Pocket Sandwich Theatre (214-821-1860 for tickets) presents Ebenezer Scrooge (November 28-December 23), Joe Dickinson and Laurie Tirmenstein's musical version of the Dickens heart-warmer. Starring David H.M. Lambert, the show features 26 actors in more than 50 roles.
Scrooge also is in da house at Dallas Theater Center (214-522-8499), where a lavish A Christmas Carol has just opened (running through December 28). English actor Robert Langdon Lloyd reprises the role of the humbug, with Chamblee Ferguson back as Bob Cratchit. According to DTC's production notes, the 20-member cast uses 62 candles, 22 oil lamps, 115 liters of liquid nitrogen (for a fog effect) and $2,000 worth of Swarovski crystals. Also, one fake dead goose.