ST. PETERSBURG — A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant is just what it sounds like: a children's musical for the holiday season.
Except that instead of Jesus Christ, the story is about L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology. John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Kirstie Alley — Scientologists all — are characters in the show. Most of the dialogue is straight out of the writings of Hubbard and church literature.
And now it's going to play in Tampa Bay, right in the backyard of the spiritual headquarters of the Church of Scientology. American Stage announced Wednesday that it is going to produce the musical satire Dec. 9-22 as part of its After Hours series.
When Kyle Jarrow, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, heard that his musical was being done in the bay area, the irony was not lost on him.
"Wow!" Jarrow said from New York. "I had no idea they were doing the show down there. Clearwater is almost ground zero for Scientology. That's sure to be extra controversial."
A spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology in Clearwater did not immediately return a phone message asking for comment on Wednesday.
In explaining the theater's choice, marketing director Andy Orrell said, "The After Hours series does shows that are more avant garde, more risque, shows that we couldn't really do on the main stage. In a lot of ways, this show fits perfectly into that criteria."
A reviewer who saw the Off Broadway premiere in 2003 provides a bit more insight into what the audience might experience.
"The artless innocence of a children's holiday pageant provides the deceptively benign backdrop for this deeply probing and ultimately disturbing query into the history of guru L. Ron Hubbard," Variety wrote. "(It) provocatively juxtaposes innocent revelry and weighty content. … (You will) laugh till it hurts!"
A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant has had as many as 20 productions around the country, Jarrow said. The American Stage production will be the first in Florida.
Jarrow, 31, a playwright and rock musician, is no stranger to controversy. "Mr. Jarrow is the kind of writer who likes to provoke people," the New Yorker said, according to a collection of blurbs on his website (landoftrust.com). An agnostic, he majored in religious studies at Yale University.
He readily acknowledges that the 60-minute musical is intended to ridicule Scientology. "At the time I wrote it, Scientology was sort of a punch line on South Park, but I think people knew a lot less about it than they do now," he said. "For that reason, it seemed like it would be interesting to explore what the religion was about."
But the playwright also has a larger point to make about organized religion. "Yeah, I have some things to say about Scientology in the play, but part of what I wanted to say is that in any religion, there are certain things that people could find ridiculous," he said. "There are plenty of Christian doctrines that, if one met an alien and tried to explain it to them, they'd think it sounded pretty ridiculous. So I think it's more than just a spoof."
The initial New York production of A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant attracted the threat of litigation by the church of Scientology. "We got a letter from them that was clearly intended to be intimidating," Jarrow said. "They did not bring a lawsuit. There has never been any legal action."
The Los Angeles production also got flak from Scientologists. "The church called the parents of a number of the actors and told them if you ever want your kids to work in Hollywood, you better pull them out of the show," Jarrow said. "To their credit, those parents all bonded together and made a group decision that they wouldn't be intimidated."
The cast and director for the American Stage production have not been determined.
Orrell said the theater's board of trustees has been considering doing the musical for at least a year. "The board discussed it, and felt that if artistically, the staff felt it was worth producing, they could get behind it," he said. "It's a great show, and since nobody else in Florida seems to want to do it, we just had to do it."
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.