Jason Tseng

Theatre Review: This Beautiful City

Filed By Jason Tseng | March 11, 2009 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Marriage Equality
Tags: New York City, theatre

This Beautiful City created by The Civilians is a docu-musical
TBC1_C.SCHWARTZ.jpg cataloguing the story of Colorado Springs: the unequivocal epicenter of the Evangelical Christian movement, it's diverse inhabitants on both sides of the religious/secular divide, and the now infamous rise and fall of Tedd Haggart. The play, which is in its last week at the Vineyard Theatre in New York City, offers up a fascinating slice of cultural anthropology, illustrating the convergence of geography, faith, politics, and humanity.

The central plot of This Beautiful City revolves around secularists bemoaning the encroachment of evangelicals upon Colorado Springs, which according to one interviewee, was once quite "live and let live." Several recurring characters in and out of the church form the theatrical framework which we are asked to view the proverbial city on the hill: an associate pastor at Haggart's New Life Church, the hipster editor of a secularist alternative newspaper, a former drug addict with a gay father who has recently come back to God, a self-described "T-Girl" who worked as an Urban Planner before being fired for being trans. While it is clear that the cast, who also performed the interviews, were mindful to include a diverse spectrum of voices in the play, it is difficult to hear anything but inauthenticity in the Christian characters.

I will have to say that This Beautiful City makes a concerted effort at being even-handed and unbiased. This is evidenced by the use of humor to unveil humanity's faults, rather than preachy condemnation. But it is very clear that we are intended to laugh with the secular citizens and laugh at the evangelicals. I'll admit, I'm first in line to ridicule evangelical Christians and their fundy politics. But it all felt a little High school, like laughing at someone behind their back.

Following in the footsteps of documentary genre of drama, This Beautiful City instantly draws parallels to other plays like Moises Kaufman's The Laramie Project, and Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992. This Beautiful City differs from the prior mentioned progenitors of the genre in that there is a distinct lack of a strong dramatic arc.

Ted Haggart's rise and fall definitely serves as a sense of dramatic tension. From the first unabashedly gleeful uttering of his name by New Life Church members foreshadows his eventual demise. But rather, the focus of the play seems more intent, and rightly so, on the City itself. However, this choice increases a sense of disorientation as we wander in and out of the lives of the residents of Colorado Springs. In addition we are introduced to another source of dramatic tension, that of the impending 2006 elections with features two ballot measures: Proposition i, which basically gave gay couples domestic partnership status, and another ballot measure forbidding gay marriage. With all these competing loyalties it is difficult to figure out where your compassion is supposed to reside.

In addition, I am still wrestling with the choice to turn these interviews into a docu-musical. Now let me say it straight out: I love musical theatre. But musicals operate in fantasy. Musicals require a greater suspension of disbelief and departure from reality. So to pair this performance structure with a source material which epitomizes the seeking of truth and authenticity seems like an odd marriage. While the music and lyrics by Michael Friedman are on the whole enjoyable, they are largely forgettable. This compounded by intermittent pitch problems with the cast, and poor key choice for some songs, led to occasionally unfortunate musical performance.

However, I have to give major props to Friedman for perfectly capturing the feel, musical conventions, and spirit of contemporary Christian music. As someone who wasn't allowed to listen to secular music until I was in high school, and also someone who led worship services with all of those feel good "Jesus is my boyfriend" lyrics: I can personally vouch for the masterful homage. Everything from the chord progressions to the over enthusiastic god-inspired joy was spot on.
Despite the drawbacks, I definitely found This Beautiful City an enjoyable experience with high production value. The scenic design by Neil Patel, inspired by architectural models situates a birds eye view of Colorado Spring, in addition to doubling as a skyline and was even used to project video images onto the roofs of the foam-board houses. While I question how the design spatially orients the audience (basically that with the bird's eye view situating the velocity of gravity towards the rear of the playing space, and then with actors standing vertically, seemingly contradicting this gravitational suggestion, causes a sort of queazy dramatic vertigo in the viewer), there is no question in that it is well made and well executed. The implementation of video projections and lighting of the scenery by Lighting designer David Weiner, was superb. All these things came together to make the production feel like it belonged in a Broadway theatre, and would have been better served with a larger performance space. Do I think it will get there? Probably not, due to the easily controversial content. But it definitely would be interesting to see.

I also must commend the performances of Emily Ackerman, who played the former junkie turned Christian mom and T-Girl Christian urban planner, and Alison Weller. Ackerman's touching delivery of her "Beautiful man" monologue was one of the most truly touching moments of the evening. In addition, Weller and Ackerman teamed up for the song "Urban Planning," which detailed the heartbreaking devotion to which the trans urban planner helped create the city that now despises her, so.

All in all a good production. Some problems, but every show has them. Come with an open mind and open heart.
This Beautiful City plays at the Vineyard Theatre through March 15th. Go to www.vineyardtheatre.org for ticketing and performance information.

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Hi Jason:

I saw this at the Studio Theater in Washington, DC last year.

I felt the same problem with the laughing with the secular perspective being just too obvious to make this play a challenging piece of theater.

However, it is a lot better than the recent documentary of Haggard.

Thanks for the comment Brett! I saw that the show had a run at the Studio Theatre before coming to New York. I grew up in DC and spent many an evening volunteer ushering in exchange for free seats to shows. I'm glad to hear that Studio is still helping produce new and good work.

I haven't seen the documentary on Haggard, but I heard similar complaints.

So do all historical musicals start out as odd choices of subject matter? I'm sure that quite a few people wondered how they turned the life of the wife of one of Argentina's fascist presidents into a musical.

I still love them!