Sunday, September 28, 2008


by Steven Leigh Morris

A few years ago, reflecting on The Trial of the Catonsville Nine presented early at his then new Mark Taper Forum, Gordon Davidson remarked on the death of the docudrama, that theater couldn't compete with the ability of the video camera to capture the microscopic physical detail and subtext of people being interviewed, and what they reveal behind and beneath their words and gestures.

Co-writers Steve Cosson and Jim Lewis, working with song-writer-lyricist Michael Friedman and New York-based The Civilians theatre company, demonstrate that one creative solution to this puzzle is to use musical theater to inflate the scale of the presentation, rather than try to put it under the microscope of videocam naturalism. This Beautiful City is an ode to Colorado Springs, Colorado, and follows multiple views from all sides of the local political and theological equations, as pastor Ted Haggard rolls into town, sets up his mega-church and takes a dive when he's outed and finally confesses to using meth.

The six-actor company (Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Herberlee, Stephen Plunkett, Alison Weller, Cosson and Lewis) depicts a range of residents whom the actors interviewed for this piece, from resident atheists to religious zealots to one trans-gender “girl”. Mercifully, these are not parodies that load the argument to spoon feed what a lefty audience in Culver City wants to hear, but interpretations reaching for the deepest and most sincere comprehension of the characters, of how life's agonies turn into religious conversions, how God and Jesus become substitutes for a kind of unqualified love and compassion that simply don't exist in Colorado, or anywhere else on Earth. Some of the interviews are sung – a four-piece band sits perched high stage left, while sermons by evangelists and baptist preachers have their own, innate brand of musicality and choreography. The piece is too long -- the rise and fall of Haggard defines its rhythm, but it keeps going for another 20 minutes, as though it's caught between its commitment to be a musical, docu-dramatic portrait of a city, and the almost classical-Greek study in the hubris of one mega-church leader. Right now, it's trying to be both. Still, if you want to understand this country, and why the good citizens of Silver Lake and Soho are so perplexed by the way things unfold here, Colorado Springs is a pretty good place to start.

Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru Oct. 26. (213) 628-2772.
Presented by Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles, and the Vineyard Theatre, New York City