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THIS CURIOUS CITY

 

picture - This Beautiful CityTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published February 27, 2009

 

This Beautiful City

now playing Off Broadway at the Vineyard Theater

through March 15

 

There is no cemetery in Aspen, so, if you die there, you are apt to get buried in Colorado Springs. Colorado Springs, which has become the center of the evangelical movement, was visited by The Civilians, the brightest and smartest of our new breed of theatricals, for ten weeks.  They base their work – such as their recent wittily illuminating Gone Missing and, before that, the even more brilliant (I Am) Nobody’s Lunch – on interviews, which are rearranged in subtle order and complemented by musical numbers;  and in the course of their visit, the Ted Haggard scandal erupted.  And the piece that has emerged from their experience is This Beautiful City, whose title is perhaps more bitingly ironic than anything in the piece itself.

 

picture - This Beautiful CityIt was, to be sure, an event that was most eagerly anticipated by admirers and followers of The Civilians, and if this review suggests that their charms and talents and insights into the peccadilloes of the folk in Colorado Springs are somewhat restrained this time around, it may have less to do with what is excellent about This Beautiful City (and a good deal of is excellent indeed) than with the sense of disappointment that naturally comes from expecting too much. Its timeliness cannot be argued with – the increasing power of the movement, in particular its steadfast and mounting pressure against gays and same-sex marriage, and its struggles within as its own fabric of existence slowly becomes unraveled and many of its hypocrisies revealed, has been headline news for a long time now – and here they come, every leading church in the area, some of their leaders, some of their choir members, some of the activists who live in the vicinity, even Ted Haggard’s son, baring quite a bit of what’s on their minds, a good deal of which is more troubling and more bracing than easily ironic.

 

And every member of this company has his or her special moment and jumps into it with lovely understated glee and quite a bit of panache (my favorite was Marsha Stephanie Blake doing a fiercely reverential sermon by the pastor who replaced Ben Reynolds as the head of Emmanuel Church; and there was real power in Brandon Miller’s Jewish Republican fighting for his son’s rights; and Stephen Plunkett, one of the company mainstays, is always loose and funny and, yet, deeply moving as Marcus Haggard).

 

Michael Friedman’s songs don’t have any particular character or personality, but the lyrics are astringent and clever and the melodies do have a way of picking things up and the expansive “Take Me There” is clearly the highlight among them. And Neil Patel’s set, which offers a bird’s-eye view of a chunk of Colorado Springs, also turns into boxes of luminescent colors and even becomes a holy cross.

 

And yet, when all is said and done, there is something not quite right about This Beautiful City, and it may be that the subject matter itself is a bit too dangerous for the kind of almost polite observation The Civilians bring to their work. And it may be that in being so even-handed, they end up being a little mild-mannered. The first act curtain is so limply predictable that it has none of the punch that was intended to draw us back for more (even though the second half of the evening is more satisfying than the first). Put more succinctly, This Beautiful City charms and engages us, but it never frightens us, and, purely as theater, it never really crackles.

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

 
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