Friday, April 4, 2008

This Beautiful City

by Paul Harris

A Studio Theater presentation, in association with Actors Theater of Louisville and the Civilians, of a musical in two acts by Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. Directed by Cosson. Musical staging, Chase Brock.

With: Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Aysan Celik, Matthew Dellapina, Brad Heberlee, Stephen Plunkett.

The latest docu-theater project to emerge from the inventive minds of the Off Broadway company the Civilians is a treatment of the evangelical Christian movement headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo. Following initial exposure earlier this year at the Actors Theater of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays, "This Beautiful City" officially premieres at D.C.'s Studio Theater in a lively production that gently skewers the religious right.

Part of a Studio Theater initiative to help develop and produce new works, the play with music follows the April debut, in a developmental production at the Public Theater, of "Paris Commune" and last year's Off Broadway hit "Gone Missing." "This Beautiful City" is scheduled to play the Kirk Douglas Theater in Los Angeles this fall and New York's Vineyard Theater next year.

Given the evangelical movement's much-publicized penchant for preaching forgiveness while practicing hardball politics, along with the personal failings of prominent movement leaders, the company could easily have delivered a partisan broadside about hypocrisy. The Civilians instead took a higher road that addresses the transgressions within a more balanced context.

Following the method of past productions, director Steven Cosson and the six-person troupe traveled to Colorado Springs in 2006 to conduct interviews and pursue research. They met with numerous members of the flock, from the die-hard to the disillusioned, along with church leaders and others.

The exercise occurred during a particularly calamitous period for evangelicals and the "beautiful city" of Colorado Springs. The Air Force Academy had previously erupted with scandals involving sexual harassment and religious discrimination, while Ted Haggard, the powerful founder of the New Life mega-church, had just been "outed" for improprieties involving prostitution and drug use. Meanwhile, area churches had become embroiled in political causes involving gay marriage, blurring the lines between church and state.

Perspectives on these and other issues are earnestly revealed from interview transcripts woven into a seamless collage interspersed with a blend of cowboy and religious rock tunes by Michael Friedman -- highlighted by act two's rousing "Take Me There" and the irreverent "E-mail From Ted Haggard." The sincerely performed and unrelated monologues collectively depict a powerful social and political force.

They include a revival meeting at the Revolution House of Prayer, personal reflections from a New Life Church parishioner, criticism from a self-appointed "church kicker" opponent, as well as insight into the movement's vast social networks. "We hope that righteousness reigns in this city," moralizes one stalwart.

Brad Heberlee is enjoyable as a charismatic New Life preacher who sidesteps the media's barbs and exhorts the congregation to vote against same-sex marriage. Marsha Stephanie Blake portrays a devout member of the troubled Emmanuel Baptist Church who assumes the pulpit following its own pastor's wayward behavior. Stephen Plunkett is effective as the energetic youth group leader as well as Haggard's much-troubled son.

The show is performed on a bare stage in front of a screen depicting an aerial view of Colorado Springs at the feet of the snow-capped Rockies. Two smaller screens left and right capture other video clips and slides.

It's safe to say evangelicals won't be terribly amused by the portrayal. But it all adds up to a generally humorous peek into the powerful church movement, although not an especially enlightening or compelling one. Running at two hours-plus, the show would benefit from some editing to strike some redundant perspectives.

Set and projections, Debra Booth; costumes, Lorraine Venberg; lighting, Michael Giannitti; sound, Erik Trester. Opened, reviewed, June 15, 2008. Runs through July 6. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.