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.