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This Beautiful City

Also see Sharon's reviews of Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara and 9 to 5

This Beautiful City
Marsha Stephanie Blake, Stephen Plunkett, Brad Heberlee, Emily Ackerman
This Beautiful City, by The Civilians, is another one of those shows based on interviews conducted by the actors with real people, where the actors then play the real people they interviewed. I generally love these shows; there's something about performers taking on the characters of real people, and speaking their real words, which has a powerful impact.

But there's more to it than just interviewing people and performing what the people say. The real artistry in creating this sort of theatre comes from the writers' editing and juxtaposing pieces of the raw text to make a point about the people interviewed—be it pro or con, sympathetic or antagonistic. But there's generally a reason the writers want us to hear the words of the interviewees in the first place—and it's something that couldn't be accomplished by just filming the interviews and showing us the raw footage.

And this is where This Beautiful City ultimately goes off the rails. It's a study of the citizens of Colorado Springs during the time surrounding the 2006 election, when two bills regarding gay rights were on the ballot. (In some ways, it couldn't be more timely to have this play in California right now.) The main focus of The Civilians' interviews was the evangelical community in Colorado Springs—the city that is home to Ted Haggard's New Life Church, among others. In This Beautiful City, members of The Civilians portray pastors and church members, as well as members of the community who oppose the evangelicals. And if you're watching the play through the eyes of, say, a member of the "liberal elite" who believes strongly in the separation of church and state, This Beautiful City has moments that are downright scary, as it portrays people who intend to turn Colorado Springs into a truly Christian town, and expand their influence into every part of civic life.

But, particularly in the second act, the play loses track of its presumed "we should be afraid of these people" message. As allegations of homosexual sex and methamphetamine use surround Haggard, the play changes its focus to the response of people around the country to the allegations. It even takes time out for a scene with Haggard's wife explaining the basis for her "stand by your man" attitude. What was once an interesting view into a world we do not often see is now a play about a single man's downfall; and, with the change in focus, it also becomes somewhat sympathetic.

The problem isn't simply the second act's focus on Haggard. The evangelical community in Colorado Springs is a very big subject, and The Civilians can't quite pin down the part of it they want to portray. Given the play's eventual focus on Haggard, it might make sense for the first act to address mainly the New Life Church. Instead, however, the Civilians focus on several other churches as well, including Emmanuel Baptist Church (which had its own issues regarding homosexuality) and the Revolution House of Prayer, a church that holds special services in a pitch black cave. New Life, Emmanuel Baptist, and Revolution House of Prayer could each serve as a basis for a separate play; piling all three together in one fails to give any the attention it truly deserves.

Another misstep is the fact that This Beautiful City is a musical, rather than a play with music. Music forms a big part of New Life's ministry—particularly its youth ministry—and the use of music when showing the church in action is certainly called for. But the other uses of music in the show have mixed results. Setting an email from Ted Haggard to music is effective; having a believer sing that "End times are coming" both dilutes the dramatic effect of her declaration of belief and takes up time that could be better spent on dialogue. And the occasional breaking up of the play by park rangers giving tips for hiking in the Rockies seems particularly pointless.

And yet, with all that is disappointing in This Beautiful City, it has moments—even fairly lengthy segments—of greatness. A scene interweaving the tirade of an angry Jewish military father with young Navy evangelicals explaining that they don't want to proselytize, but merely "evanglize the unchurched" in the military is a perfect use of the medium. The act one scenes of the New Life youth ministry in action, where youth bounce up and down on stage with the pure excitement of having a relationship with the Lord are similarly exceptional for their portrayal of the "no pressure" sales pitch that appears to be very difficult to resist. ("Come to Christ tonight. Let me take you on this awesome journey!") And while many in the cast have moments to shine, Marsha Stephanie Blake gives a fantastic second act monologue as a pastor at Emmanuel Baptist.

Pared down and focussed, This Beautiful City could be a laser-sharp indictment of the evangelical movement with respect to its attitudes toward homosexuality. But its current scattershot approach fails to successfully hit any target.

This Beautiful City runs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through October 26, 2008. For tickets and information, see www.centertheatregroup.org.

Center Theatre Group -- Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Gordon Davidson, Founding Artistic Director -- presents The Civilians' This Beautiful City. Written by Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis. Music and Lyrics by Michael Friedman. From interviews conducted by Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Heberlee, Stephen Plunkett, Alison Weller, and the Authors. With Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Heberlee, Brandon Miller, Stephen Plunkett, Alison Weller. Set Design Neil Patel; Costume Design Alix hester; Lighting Design David Weiner; Sound Design Ken Travis; Projection Design Jason H. Thompson; Music Director Erik James; Choreographer John Carrafa; Associate Producer Kelley Kirkpatrick; Production Stage Manager Hannah Cohen; Stage Manager Jennifer Brienen. Directed by Steven Cosson.

Photo: Craig Schwartz


- Sharon Perlmutter






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