Friday, October 3, 2008

This Beautiful City

by Evan Henerson, Theater Critic

A city - and a movement - in transition, presented with vibrancy and theatricality

When a New York-based theater company came into town asking questions about church life, the citizenry of Colorado Springs must have had a sense that their city wasn't being prepped for a roast job.

Either that or the interviewers from The Civilians asked the right questions. Or the Coloradans - church-goers, in particular - were extremely trusting.

Whatever. "This Beautiful City," a far-ranging theatrical examination of evangelical Christianity, is as even-handed as it is vibrant. Created from hundreds of interviews by Civilians writers and ensemble members, the musical play is part revival meeting, part journalistic expose and sociological mediation - and fully a rich evening.

The production, at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre - a co-venture with New York's Vineyard Theatre, where "City" heads next - takes audiences deeply and satisfyingly into a city of paradoxes. That would be Colorado Springs, population about 370,000, and voted the No. 1 Best Big City to Live In by Money magazine in 2006.

Churches both small and super-size dominate the landscape. Love and fraternity are preached, as well as intolerance. Believers, skeptics and watchdogs - besides the visiting Civilians, that is - share the same breathtaking mountain scenery.

It may be a sometimes uneasy peace. In his alternative rag, the Toilet Paper, the publisher (played by Brandon Miller) publishes a series of photos showing people kicking churches. We get his story, too.

The six members of the Civilians also play pastors, choir members, activists, forest rangers, military personnel and ordinary folks. We see many of these people answering questions or recounting a story, but we never hear the specific question being asked. The citizens, thus, seem largely ungraded.

For dramatic purposes, the Civilians clearly did their research at the right time. Set amid a 2006 midterm election that included a referendum for same sex couples' rights, "This Beautiful City" also charts the downfall of New Life Church founder the Rev. Ted Haggard. Haggard, who had White House ties, left the mega-church in 2007 amid charges of homosexuality and methamphetamine use.

Haggard appears in the play only briefly, and primarily through e-mails, and "This Beautiful City" offers an associate New Life pastor (played by Brad Heberlee) who seems just as dangerous, if less of a hypocrite.

The music, by "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson's" Michael Friedman, mixes country, Christian pop and soaring gospel. Neither Friedman nor writers Steven Cosson - who also directs - and Jim Lewis go for satire. Good, bad, possessed of a heart full of faith or of intolerance, these people are unapologetically who they are.

Notable among the largely excellent cast is Emily Ackerman, who plays a young leader of a God's Grace tolerance sect and a transvestite Christian T-Girl offering a unique perspective over the Haggard developments.

Stephen Plunkett rouses the crowd during a youth ministry sermon and silences them when he arrives later as the Rev. Ted's son, Marcus Haggard. Alison Weller, Marsha Stephanie Blake and Brandon Miller round out the cast.


Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Civilians' This Beautiful City

A Center Theater Group presentation co-produced with the Vineyard Theater, New York, of a play with music in two acts by Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis, based on interviews conducted by Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Heberlee, Stephen Plunkett, Alison Weller and the authors. Music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. Directed by Cosson.

With: Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Heberlee, Brandon Miller, Stephen Plunkett, Alison Weller.

Musical Numbers: "Cowboys," "This Beautiful City," "An Email From Ted," "End Times," "Doubting Thomas," "Demons and Angels," "Freedom," "Take Me There," "The Order of Things," "Another Email From Ted," "Urban Planning," "Pikes Peak."

Evangelism and investigative journalism share a passion to open other people's eyes to "the truth." As such, "This Beautiful City" impresses as a work of religious inquiry and engaged reportage. Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis weave first-person interviews in Christian boomtown Colorado Springs, conducted by theatrical community activists the Civilians, into a fascinating crazy quilt on faith's role in American life. Each side gets intel on its opponents, and some may be moved to question their own assumptions en route.

All agree this is a damn beautiful place, the Rockies' purple majesty ever-present in a relief-map frontcloth and rear projection. After that, secularists and believers part company in a range of opinions the six Civilian witnesses elicited and now perform -- and it's a far broader range than many will anticipate.

"Is there a particular slant you would like to put on?" asks an early born-again interviewee fearing her portrayal as a right-wing whacko. Troupe certainly revels in instances of fundamentalist creepiness, such as an Air Force cadet trio boasting of their officially condoned evangelizing.

Call of a young pastor (Brad Heberlee) to register and vote in Jesus' name is rendered as sleazily seductive, while an alternative newsman (Brandon Miller) gloating over Pastor Ted Haggard's celebrated fall is taken in businesslike stride. Caricature is always applied to the right, whereas the arguments of atheists get a straightforward treatment (and usually the last word).

Yet it would be catastrophically incorrect to paint "This Beautiful City" as a one-sided diatribe, for the respect it shows to evangelists' core beliefs -- or, at least, to the human needs underlying those beliefs -- is downright sublime.

"God is definitely doing something in this city," asserts one radiant resident. As often as not, the play withholds judgment on a young mother (Emily Ackerman) blessing God for ending her meth addiction, or Haggard's pastor son (Stephen Plunkett) explaining the heartfelt lessons to be learned from his father's misdeeds. Those who profess to see a possible accommodation between warring camps are given the most sympathetic hearing.

Michael Friedman's excellent score contributes to the evenhandedness. Wholly capturing the appeal of hard-driving Christian pop ("Take Me There" could become a genre standard), he even more skillfully translates prose emails and spoken monologues into fully shaped songs with build and balance.

It's impossible to imagine Christian revival without its music, and thanks to Friedman, it's easy to understand how music pulls people into pews.

"This Beautiful City" seems to have lost running time since its Louisville and D.C. engagements, but trimming may still help as it travels East to co-producer Vineyard Theater. Though it's nominally structured around the rise and fall of Haggard (purchaser of males and meth), meandering side trips lend an unwelcome stop-and-start quality to act two.

But the visual variety afforded by Jason H. Thompson's projections and David Weiner's shimmering lighting maintains interest, and Neil Patel's 3-D wall of geometric shapes plays host to photos, video clips and ever-shifting color in sync with show's shifting moods.

The key to the Civilians' strategy can be spotted in the morally complex story of Emmanuel Baptist Church, whose pastor outed himself to the congregation's consternation.

Single-handedly, Marsha Stephanie Blake personalizes every side of the show's larger debate: a traditionalist choir member who rejects this "gay stuff"; the disgraced pastor, secure in his new-found pride; and his soft-spoken replacement turning fire-and-brimstone while spouting solid common sense: "Stop looking at other folk to validate you ... If don't nobody lay hands on you, put your hands on your own head. Bless yo'self! Lose some weight! Wash your face! And get movin'!"

As troubled as the Civilians are about faith's incursions on civil liberties, they also admire religion's capacity to get folks to validate themselves and get movin'. Troupe has clearly thought long and hard about these issues, and so will any visitor to "This Beautiful City."

Sets, Neil Patel; costumes, Alix Hester; lighting, David Weiner; projections, Jason H. Thompson; choreographer, John Carrafa; music director, Erik James; production stage manager, Hannah Cohen. Opened, reviewed Sept. 28, 2008. Runs through Oct. 26. Running time: 2 HOURS.