A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant is basically a one-joke show. To combine Church of Scientology doctrine with a cheesy synth-pop score is wicked fun. But the dialogue and lyrics are so insipid ("It's a happy day/And the flowers are in bloom/If you are not okay/We know you will be soon") that this droll little musical soon runs out of interest.
In its production, American Stage has also blunted a key aspect of the show, conceived by Alex Timbers, with book, music and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow. Originally, Pageant was performed by a cast of children ages 8-13, and reviewers found that their innocence and unprofessional acting had a certain charm. But concerned about possible intimidation by Scientologists — as happened with a Los Angeles production — the St. Petersburg theater cast six 20-something actors, and the kiddy pageant angle is lost with them in the roles.
With adult actors, you expect more slashing satire, but Jarrow's text takes a blank, deadpan approach to Scientology absurdities like engrams, E-meters, Prince Xenu and Thetans. A leitmotif of the show is the question "What does the 'L' stand for?" in L. Ron Hubbard, the church's patron saint, and at one point it is suggested that it stands for "Liar," but that's about as edgy as things get.
Stephen Ray plays Hubbard, dressed in a blazer and ascot, sporting a yachting cap and puffing on a pipe, looking for all the world like another American obsessive, Hugh Hefner. Betty-Jane Parks is suitably goofy as a Hawaiian whom Hubbard consults on his quest to discover the meaning of life. In a heartbreaking scene, Tia Jemison plays a young woman phoning her mother to say she's made friends in a cult. "And they tell me I'm/Too special to leave/So I won't see/You for a long, long time," she sings in the nightmare of any parent.
American Stage deserves credit for performing Pageant in the back yard of Scientology's spiritual center in Clearwater, but the hourlong musical is more amusing in theory than in practice.
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American Stage is also presenting The SantaLand Diaries, with Brian Shea hilariously holding court as one of Santa's elves at Macy's. David Sedaris' mordant monologue on the humiliations of temp work during the holidays is a modern classic, and Shea is totally convincing in a green velvet coat and candy-cane leggings.
I hadn't seen Shea in a play for a few years, and I was reminded again of what a fine actor he is. He has a wonderfully mobile, expressive face, his eyes seeming to roll up in the back of his head, wringing his hands, his tongue flicking in and out nervously as he explains that he can't supply the "grinding enthusiasm" called for at SantaLand. With his disheveled hair, fretful comic exasperation and excellent voice, he's like a pint-sized version of the great English actor Charles Laughton.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.