NOLA Project Artistic Director A.J. Allegra didn't have to tell his young cast who Tom Cruise and John Travolta are, but they weren't familiar with Kirstie Alley.
"I had to explain Cheers to them," Allegra says. "We added a sound cue from the Cheers' intro to the show."
Alley's stint on the sitcom Cheers ended in 1993 — at least seven years before any of the young actors were born. They also didn't know anything about L. Ron Hubbard, but in the play, they all gleefully identify him as: "Teacher, author, explorer, atomic physicist, nautical engineer, choreographer, horticulturist and father of Scientology!"
A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant is a musical holiday nativity for Scientology and its founder. There is an improvised manger as well as dancing and cheery music. The actors, all between the ages of 9 and 13, breathlessly extol the virtues of Scientology and glorify the life of Hubbard, detailing his birth in Nebraska, search for knowledge in college and traveling the world, his exploits in the military and his writing. The pageant also includes Scientologist celebrities. Kids play Travolta, Cruise and Alley.
They also chronicle Hubbard's founding of the Church of Scientology and his response to critics. When a busy and terse New Yorker questions the fees paid by members of the church, a smiling young Hubbard grandly replies that knowledge is "priceless."
The script is meant to be played straightforwardly. Alex Timbers (Peter and the Starcatcher) came up with the concept, and much of Kyle Jarrow's text comes from Hubbard's writings and church literature. That original source material didn't stop the Church of Scientology from objecting to the 2003 New York premiere, and the producers' lawyers advised them to add the word "Unauthorized" to the title.
The NOLA Project likes to put on an offbeat holiday show, such as David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries, which Allegra has performed as a one-man show. This production is different because it's the first one that features none of the company's actors. Allegra and company member Natalie Boyd are directing the show.
The NOLA Project put out an audition notice in summer and talked to parents about the content of the show. When it was cast, Allegra talked to the kids about the play.
"I told them people might laugh at some of the material that doesn't seem funny," he says.
As they worked on the show, some cast members wanted the group to visit the local Scientology church, but Allegra hasn't taken them on a field trip.
By design, the tone of the show is upbeat and takes advantage of the young cast's exuberance. Allegra notes that there's an exploitative air to that appropriated sense of wonder, but it's the same tone featured in many children's plays and holiday shows.
The pageant is unconventional, fitting the NOLA Project's hope for every production.
"We always want to do 'the show you have to see to believe,'" Allegra says.