Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Heberlee, Brandon Miller, Stephen Plunkett, Alison Weller
As musicals go, there have been some oddities in the past, but few concepts seem less likely for success than a musical-documentary exploration of the Colorado Springs evangelical movement and the Ted Haggard scandal of 2006.
Nevertheless, the theatre troupe The Civilians have decided to tackle just that subject in their latest musical This Beautiful City more a play with music if you want to parse words), currently playing at the Vineyard Theatre, and they’ve done a remarkably level-headed job cramming the cornucopia of material at their disposal into a satisfying dramatic structure (albeit with a few exceptions).
The Civilians, whose Gone Missing was a success off-Broadway, specialize in documentary theatre.
In the construction of this piece, most of the cast traveled to Colorado Springs themselves, conducting a broad range of interviews with local residents and church affiliates, which writer-director Steven Cosson used as the basis of the play, cowritten alongside Jim Lewis.
Their original mission was to write a show about evangelicals. They weren’t expecting the Ted Haggard scandal, which broke out during the course of their interview process. Haggard, who ran the New Life Church in Colorado Springs and was leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, was outed by a meth dealer and prostitute named Mike Jones, who claimed that Haggard had solicited drugs and homosexual sex.
It’s for the best that the creators refuse to be bogged down by the character of Haggard. His influence looms over the show like a mist, but he never appears on-stage. More important are the ordinary folk who populate the town. There are the disgruntled atheist townie, the devoted church member whose estranged father is gay, the transsexual (“T-girl”), the youth group leader, Haggard’s son Marcus, gay Emmanuel Baptist Church ex-pastor Ben Reynolds, and others. Despite the doubling of roles, each character has a unique voice.
Somewhat stilted is the presentational style of the show, which often features the characters talking directly outward to the audience, as if we’re interrogating them in the moment. This choice on the part of writer-director Steven Cosson causes the on-stage action to feel static at times rather than engaging. And, though the writing is mostly even-handed in its depictions of evangelicals, the piece would benefit from even fewer jabs at their faith.
Michael Friedman, who’s penned the show’s score, has crafted some enjoyable songs. The title tune, an amusing send-up of inane Christian-rock lyrics (“Fill me with your awesome love” and “Do something new in me” come to mind) is particularly fun though irreverent. Other top tunes include “End Times,” hauntingly sung by Alison Weller, and “Whatever,” given an unpolished, spirited interpretation by Marsha Stephane Blake as a young girl who doesn’t quite fit in with her evangelical friends at school. While none of the melodies stuck with me after a first listen, the songs are consistently good enough to merit repeated listens.
Though the cast isn’t made up of particularly impressive singers, their accomplishment is in making us believe they’re ordinary Colorado Springs people rather than creatures of the stage. There aren’t really standouts amongst the six performers, but that’s for the best; they’re a cohesive unit.
Behind the cast is a colorful, creative by Neil Patel, set up to look like a bird’s eye view of Colorado Springs and the massive New Life Church complex. Behind its geometric building block-style configuration is a projection screen that features multimedia images at choice moments during the show. Colorful lighting by David Weiner brings a sense of glam to the showily metatheatrical New Life moments.
Where the show falls short is in tying up its loose ends. By the end of the play, we’re expecting some satisfying conclusion, but instead we get a petering off of sorts that doesn’t feel quite right. It would seem like a bum note to end a show about an elusive topic like faith with something too decisive and pat, but as it stands – despite its accomplishments – the show seems oddly unfinished.