EmptyKirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City (Through Oct. 26)
The West Coast premiere of a New York troop's take on the rise and fall of one of the nation's most powerful Evangelical churches plays to the current public appetite for scandalous revelation about highly visible public leaders.
The Civilians' production of "This Beautiful City," however, turns out to be a surprisingly pastoral, sympathetic elegy on the rise and fall of the New Life Church and its charismatic leader Ted Haggard. During the occasionally tedious two-hour show, an enthusiastic cast and crew explore the city of Colorado Springs, Colo., which continues to be the home of James Dobson's nationally prominent Focus on the Family.
Supporters and detractors of the Evangelical movement are more likely to enjoy than be offended by this play with music, based on interviews conducted by cast members. The initial thrust combines muted criticism of the movement with a stream of gently sardonic recreations of sermons, meetings and political machinations that amuse the audience with one liners like "Colorado Springs could have been like Santa Fe. Now, I feel like I'm living in Middle Earth."
Although the talented ensemble covers a lot of ground, they make their stand on a number of key points: the pushback of the Colorado College student population and longtime residents of the community against the conforming pressures of the churches, symbolized by a young newspaper editor (earnestly explained Brandon Miller) and a burned-out political activist (sympathetically portrayed by Alison Weller); the outcasting of the gay population, symbolized by the adventures of a Christian T-girl (extravagantly if humorlessly re-created by Emily Ackerman); the dilemma of minority groups, symbolized by various members of a black congregation (Marsha Stephanie Blake).
The documentary style of the presentation provides a nicely fluid structure to the proceedings, setting the stage for a series of reports, discussions, interviews and the occasional song, most of which are written in a folksy cowboy vein, though some driving rock and a hymn of two pop up now and then. The songs are set refreshingly to a variety of often unconventional sung and spoken texts, which creates an unpredictable rhythmic sense to the story while lessening the need for strong voices and perfect intonation.
All of the main members of the cast are called on to perform yeoman duty, and all of them find at least one character that works particularly well for them and the audience. Brad Heberlee's borderline smarmy pastor unifies the evening with his consistently strong shtick and attractive crooning. Stephen Plunkett gives really great religion as one of the church's more outspoken leaders. Ackerman, Weller and Miller show off some amazing feats of versatility, and Blake brings down the house toward the end with a sermon aimed at comforting fallen angels.
The production is attractive, with an unusual backdrop fashioned from an aerial view of Colorado Springs, in front of which furniture and props move unobtrusively in and out with astonishing speed, and a panoramic shot of the Rocky Mountains. A backlit projection screen is used sparingly but to good effect. The title of the play refers to the fact that Katharine Lee Bates' lyrics for "America the Beautiful" were inspired in part by the view from Pike's Peak.
Cast: Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Heberlee, Brandon Miller, Stephen Plunkett, and Alison Weller.
Playwrights: Steven Cosson, Jim Lewis; Music-lyrics: Michael Friedman.
Director: Stephen Cosson.
Set design by Neil Patel.
Costumes by Alix Hester.
Lighting by David Weiner.
Sound design by Ken Travis.
Projection design by Jason H. Thompson.
Music direction by Erik James.
Choreography by John Carrafa.
Casting by Bonnie Grisan.
Musicians: Tom Corbett, Erik James, Mike Schadel and Brian Duke Song.