On a Mountain, Gazing Upwards

There’s no lack of ambition in This Beautiful City, the latest work of documentary theater by The Civilians. Narrating the farcical downfall of evangelical preacher Ted Haggard and its impact on the Colorado Springs community, the work features thirteen musical numbers, a cast of six actors playing more than fifteen characters, and as many individual story arcs. The work certainly offers a rich palette of viewpoints, but by the time it reaches the frantic worship scenes of its second act, exhaustion sets in. This Beautiful City is based on a series of interviews conducted by writers Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis, along with five of its cast members, in the Colorado Springs area. And despite being punctuated by energetic musical numbers, these true stories are mostly presented as monologues that place the audience in the role of the interviewer. The characters—ranging from evangelical pastors and liberal activists to a teenage girl, a transsexual woman, a local mother and the son of Ted Haggard—frequently make this relationship explicit. “Did you have trouble finding here?” one character asks. “Is there a particular slant you’d like to put?” another says, gazing at the audience.

The setup recalls other successful works of journalism-based theater (Culture Project’s Iraq-based monologue play, In Conflict, recently took a similar approach) and juxtaposes nicely with the show’s musical theater elements. On several occasions, two characters present contrasting monologues while sitting on their respective sides of the stage, thus creating a stylized variation of a political debate.

Because the show’s creators directly quote real-life individuals, This Beautiful City is notably ambiguous in its satirical moments—and in its moral message. Excerpts from Ted Haggard’s actual emails and the use of terms like "strategic prayer" generate laughs, but the work never slips into outward mockery. If anything, it appears to be too concerned with presenting each and every side of a community built on idealistic extremes. The lineup of character introductions feels endless at points, and despite the strong performances, makes it difficult for the audience to feel genuine attachment to any particular character.

If its script could benefit from a series of edits, the show’s visuals are nothing short of flawless. The backdrop of the stage is a small town viewed from above, in which clusters of rectangular rooftops are contrasted by small patches of green. Throughout the show, these roofs serve as canvases for projected images and bright neon lights. As we hear a cast member read an email from Haggard, for example, we simultaneously see photographs of him, slyly grinning, on these rectangles. As the scene progresses, the photos are replaced by white, lowercase words on blue screens. Recalling words from his letters, they display words like “God” and “trust.” A large, unmarked area above the town is also carefully utilized. At points, it depicts looming rain clouds; during others, it shows a range of snow-capped Colorado mountains. From the looks of it, set designer Neil Patel (who also crafted [title of show]), lighting designer David Weiner and projection designer Jason Thompson played well together.

The six actors, each of whom takes on multiple characters throughout the production, are talented enough to not let the visual spectacle dictate their performances. Their notable vocal skills not only allow them to achieve crisp, ringing harmonies in the show’s musical numbers, but lend themselves to intense, terrifying prayer scenes.

Stephen Plunkett, who channels the straight-laced magnetism of a guitar-toting youth minister and later the quiet disbelief of Haggard’s son Marcus, is a notable standout along with Emily Ackerman, who creates some of the show’s most gut-wrenching moments as both a transgendered woman and a local church member with a self-destructive past. Brad Heberlee makes an equally impressive transition from playing an associate pastor at New Life megachurch to portraying a gay rights activist. Watching their focused performances, one becomes particularly aware of the rambling feel of the script; had the writers featured a smaller cast of characters and slipped into fewer detours with park rangers and prayer groups, this alluring work could have delivered a more focused punch.

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