NEW YORK — Few sights of the holiday season are so heartwarming as a flock of little kids raising their sweet voices in praise of — L. Ron Hubbard?
A sly mix of avant-garde attitude with old-fashioned children’s theater, the satirical piece was originally created in 2003 by a then-freshman troupe called Les Freres Corbusier. Since then the organization has produced well-reviewed works such as “Boozy” (about urban developer Robert Moses) and “Heddatron” (Ibsen done with robots).
The company’s executive director, Aaron Lemon-Strauss, credits director Alex Timbers with hatching the wicked notion for the Scientology charade and staging it with an ensemble of nonprofessional children. Writer-composer Kyle Jarrow, he recalls, “was sent to his basement in Brooklyn to write as fast as he could and came back to us with the show in two weeks.”
Tricked out with sci-fi orchestrations and featuring numbers like “Science of the Mind” and “Mister Auditor,” Jarrow’s cheerful kiddie-rock-based score shimmers with a strangely hypnotic quality.
The text artlessly details the story of Hubbard’s life and the doctrine of Scientology. Celebrity followers such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta are also depicted by the pint-sized ensemble.
“You’ve got these kids dressed in angelic robes on a pink carpet, singing,” remarks Lemon-Strauss. “So it’s all sweet and happy for a while, and then you realize what they’re saying is totally crazy.”
Initially produced at a 50-seat space on West 42nd Street, the show later transferred to the John Houseman Theatre for a stint honored by an Obie Award. A subsequent engagement in Los Angeles also proved a popular attraction.
While the original production was still in rehearsal, Les Freres Corbusier received a letter from Scientology officials. “It wasn’t anything threatening,” says Lemon-Strauss. “It spelled out some times other people were sued for misrepresentation.”
He assumes the church still isn’t happy about the show’s existence but because the text scrupulously relates Scientology tenets, there’s little to be done about it. “We haven’t been sued yet,” he reports.
This year’s revival is presented in a 99-seat space by New York Theatre Workshop with Timbers again directing the pageant. The 75-minute attraction is performed by a 10-member ensemble of grade-school children including New Jerseyans Hudson Cianni of Closter, Katya Peters of Fair Lawn and Will Wiggins of Ocean City.
“They’re real kids who’ve done shows in their schools,” says Lemon-Strauss. “We deliberately didn’t hire professionals right off the national tour of ‘Les Miz.'”
With a brightly colored setting apparently built with a glue-gun and costumes seemingly stitched by moms at home, the visuals are intended to harmonize with the deadpan performances. Lemon-Strauss terms the naive style of the presentation as “well-rehearsed amateurism,” saying, “We really try to make the pageant look like it’s being done in a church basement.”
Where: 4th Street Theatre, 83 E. 4th St., New YorkWhen: Through Jan. 7. Previews begin Wednesday. 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. SundaysHow much: $25, $35. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.les freres.org.
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