Regional Reviews: San Diego
This Beautiful City
Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis are credited as the writers of this play (interviews were conducted by them and several other people), and their handling of the subject matter is complex and nuanced. Act one discusses the anti-gay intolerance of certain evangelical Christians in a way that can be both funny and unsettling to learn. While it's not initially clear at first if The Civilians are creating a scathing critique of religion, evangelicals, or the anti-gay population, the story ends up being pro-faith and anti-moral superiority. Short stories range from those about the United States Air Force, a recovering drug addict (Theo Allyn), and an intolerant congregation member (Jasmine January). With the exception of a rather heavy-handed monologue performed by January as a preacher toward the resolution, the short scenes are often humorous and engaging. A unique aspect about the various tales is how they often segue into the late Michael Friedman's original songs.
One benefit of this staging is the opportunity to hear many great Friedman tunes performed live, which aren't readily available to listen to online. The melodies cover a wide variety of genres, from country music and Christian rock music to radio-friendly pop. The band, consisting of co-star/music director/keyboardist Tony Houck, co-star/guitarist Cusimano, drummer Nobuko Kemmotsu and bassist Jay Hemphill, create a concert-esque sound that's thrilling to hear in the University Heights venue. Performers such as Houck, Cusimano, Allyn and Victor E. Chan sing with clarity and raw emotion in ensemble numbers and the occasional solos. Although they don't quite get the same amount of vocally-demanding material as the other co-stars, two other company members, January and Kim Heil, bring a lot of personality to the parts they play.
Houck, Cusimano, Chan, January and Heil depict people across a wide span, from anti-gay individuals to LGBT, and from conservatives to liberals. They can occasionally have fun with the extreme personalities of a few of the characters, without turning the parts into caricatures or cartoons. There are also moments of raw drama, mostly given to Allyn. She plays most of her parts with an emotional openness that's often touching to watch. Each of the performances is guided by the strong direction of artistic director, Matt M. Morrow.
In the interviews, Morrow keeps audiences intrigued by Cosson and Lewis' narrative, through revealing monologues. His intimate storytelling makes theatregoers feel they are being directly spoken to. He's equally adept at staging the songs, which are focused more on Friedman's writing than on flashy choreography. Design work, such as Elisa Benzoni's costumes and Blake McCarty's projections, help visually tell the tales with intelligent craft, and Curtis Mueller's lighting is very effective during the intense conclusion to act one. Although there's a lot to appreciate about the work of Morrow's design staff, they intentionally don't draw too much attention away from the spoken vignettes and singing onstage.
Diversionary's interpretation treats a potentially sensitive plot with humanity and compassion. The production is an enjoyable and insightful one, regardless of your background or personal beliefs.
This Beautiful City, through December 16, 2018, at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd # 101, San Diego CA. Performances are Sundays through Saturdays. Tickets start at $27.00 and can be purchased online at www.diversionary.org or by phone at 619-220-0097.