In an interview prior to the opening of Diversionary Theatre’s tenth anniversary production of This Beautiful City, co-author Steven Cosson called his work “a period piece.” He’s right and he’s not – and that dichotomy makes This Beautiful City problematic, both to produce and to enjoy.
Developed by an “investigative” theatre troupe called The Civilians, This Beautiful City emerged from interviews conducted in Colorado Springs that attempted to document how and why the city had become the informal evangelical Christian capital of the U. S. Company members spread out across the city in 2006 and talked primarily to staff and followers of various churches, mostly evangelical, but with a sampling of those representing progressive Christianity and New Age spirituality. Company members, led by Mr. Cosson and co-writer Jim Lewis, constructed a play from the interviews. Company member Michael Friedman wrote the songs featured in the show.
The company was collecting interviews when news broke that Ted Haggard, the founder of New Life Church, the area’s largest, had been seeing a male prostitute in Denver for drugs and sex. Haggard, who had founded New Life in 1984, voluntarily stepped aside, and the church’s board quickly dismissed him.
Act 1 of This Beautiful City introduces a range of voices from Colorado Springs and surrounding areas representing somewhat differing points of view. Most of the voices are from various strands of evangelical Christianity, however, and the selections from the interview texts go to pains to focus on the churches’ demands for conformity of belief and on how the notion of “traditional values” played out – sometimes conventionally, sometimes not. There is quite a bit of emphasis on doctrinaire beliefs about the sins of gay men. Interestingly, though Focus on the Family, the large anti-gay advocacy group headquartered in Colorado Springs, is mentioned, no voices from that organization are included.
Act 2 returns to a smaller number of characters and follows their stories more intensively. These various characters are played by a six-person ensemble: Theo Allyn, Victor E. Chan, Michael Louis Cusimano, Kim Heil, Tony Houck (who also serves as music director), and Jasmine January. Each of these cast members has opportunities to shine, though I’d single out Ms. Allyn and Mr. Chan for going beyond “shine” to “memorable.” The focus on these individuals’ stories helps to turn what might have been a political screed about religious hypocrisy into genuine drama that touches real emotions. The screed is by now old hat; the genuine drama about how religion and spirituality touches individual lives remains fresh.
Much of the credit here goes to director Matt M. Morrow, who carefully guides his ensemble through sensitive emotional territory and allows essential humanity to emerge before the play’s end. He’s also careful to feature Mr. Friedman’s music without turning it into a morbid tribute to an artist who died last year (at 41, of HIV/AIDS).
Mr. Morrow is ably supported by Mr. Houck’s musical direction (and a four-piece band that occupies one corner of the stage), as well as by Justin Humphres’ creative scenic design, which deftly incorporates Blake McCarty’s projections. Elisa Benzoni’s costumes also don’t call attention to themselves, while Curtis Mueller’s lighting design highlights individuals on an otherwise dark stage. Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound design blends singers and band adroitly.
With a production that outdoes the material on which it is based, it’s a credit to San Diego audiences that This Beautiful City has extended for a week, now closing on December 16.
[box]Performs Thursdays at 7pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm at Diversionary’s main stage in University Heights. Street parking only: allow extra time to find parking and walk to the theatre. This review was based on the opening night performance, Saturday, November 17, 2018.