BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Last year, for its holiday show, American Stage did a version of It's a Wonderful Life. Although the production was a success, it got producing artistic director Todd Olson and the staff thinking about doing something completely different as a followup.
“This Wonderful Life was pretty traditional,'' Olson says. "So the thinking was, let's do something really irreverent next year.''
So the St. Petersburg theater has traded Jimmy Stewart for L. Ron Hubbard. Its staging of the satire A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant opens tonight.
The show is just what it sounds like: a children's musical for the season, except that instead of Jesus Christ, the story is about Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology. John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Kirstie Alley — Scientologists all — are depicted in the play. Most of the dialogue is straight from the writings of Hubbard and church literature.
Scientology Pageant was first performed off Broadway seven years ago, but this will be its Florida premiere, right in the back yard of Scientology's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater. When Kyle Jarrow, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for the show, heard it was being done in the Tampa Bay area, the irony was not lost on him.
"Wow!'' Jarrow told the St. Petersburg Times when the production was announced in November. "Clearwater is almost ground zero for Scientology. That's sure to be extra controversial.''
Last week, Olson said he had heard nothing official from the church, which has an office across Williams Park from the theater. "We reached out to them to ask if they wanted to put a table in our lobby or something like that, but there was no response,'' he said. "I did get one letter from a couple of patrons, longtime supporters of American Stage, Scientologists, who are obviously disappointed we made this choice.''
Among many comments to the Times story online about the production, a Scientologist listed American Stage board members and their businesses.
The theater has made accommodations for what could be a sticky situation. When Scientology Pageant was done in Los Angeles, the church's home base, Scientologists called the parents of child actors in the show in an effort to intimidate them.
Many theaters have performed the show with children — often, this is cited by reviewers as part of its droll charm — but American Stage is going with a cast of 20-somethings.
"I just felt like since we're the epicenter of the Scientology universe that anything could happen in doing this,'' said Olson, who is directing the production along with Karla Hartley. "I felt uncomfortable involving children if there was going to be any pressure in any direction. We're not completely sure what we're wading into here. So we decided to cast adults.''
In rehearsal, the actors have prepared for unforeseen events. "Someone could stand up and interrupt the performance, and we have to be ready for that,'' Olson said. "We will be videotaping the performance, and by that I mean we'll probably be videotaping the audience. If anything does happen, I want it documented in some way.''
Of course, controversy often sells, and American Stage expects to do well at the box office. "There was an initial excitement, and I think we sold a hundred tickets or more when it was announced,'' Olson said. "There's a corporate night that got sold right away.''
The musical, which runs about an hour and is performed to a synth-pop score on CD, has been praised for its wry treatment of e-meters, auditing, Xenu, Dianetics and other Scientology matters.
"I'm not religious myself,'' Olson said. "I'm not vested one way or another. But I do think it's a healthy sign if we can talk about these things in an artistic and a theatrical way and hold the mirror up to things and look at them in a lighter sense. We should be able to laugh at ourselves no matter who we are.''
As part of American Stage's "After Hours'' series, Scientology Pageant will run in repertory with another offbeat holiday show, The SantaLand Diaries, a stage adaptation of David Sedaris' essay about working as a Christmas elf named Crumpet at a Macy's "SantaLand.'' Brian Shea stars as the elf in the play, which has had several productions through the years at the theater.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.