In 'This Beautiful City,' Musical Storytelling Is Born Again

Marsha Stephanie Blake in "This Beautiful City," the Civilians' documentary-style exposition on evangelical Christianity in Colorado.
Marsha Stephanie Blake in "This Beautiful City," the Civilians' documentary-style exposition on evangelical Christianity in Colorado. (Carol Pratt - Studio Theatre)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008

To get to "This Beautiful City," proceed to the junction of PBS and Broadway. The storytelling style of the Civilians, a savvy young troupe of New York actors, is to immerse themselves in a subject, interview a lot of people, compose a few songs and edit all the material into what amounts to a lyrical piece of journalism.

Think of yourself as holding a ticket to "Frontline: The Musical."

On the occasion of "This Beautiful City," a brand-new piece getting up on its feet at Studio Theatre, the company is tackling the subject of evangelical Christianity. The city in question, temporally speaking, is Colorado Springs, headquarters of New Life mega-church, a 14,000-member congregation that until two years ago was under the spiritual management of the Rev. Ted Haggard.

Fortunately for the Civilians, the Haggard sexual scandal broke -- for those of you keeping track of faith-based peccadilloes, this one involved allegations of drug use and homosexual infidelity -- while they were out in the Rockies researching the work. As a result, the sharp, invigorating "Beautiful City" has some of the heat it might otherwise have lacked, tackling a topic so vast and prone to easy stereotype.

The production's six excellent performers -- four of whom were among those conducting the interviews in Colorado -- assume the identities of various members of New Life and other churches, as well as pastors, apostates and cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy, which is also based there. These encounters, knitted into a script by Jim Lewis and Steven Cosson (who also directs it), are supposed to offer insight into the permutations of fundamentalist Christianity. A lot of time is spent inside the churches themselves, examining, for instance, the melding of revival-meeting fervor and rock-concert fever during a New Life youth ministry.

The Civilians want to appear to be fair-minded reporters, at least up to a point. Audiences, no doubt, will hear what they want to hear. At my performance, spectators had their antennae up for any telltale sign of hypocrisy in the statements of church leaders. And by virtue of the self-serving posturing that "This Beautiful City" dramatizes, you are in fact steered to the sense of an institution desperate to sanitize and protect itself. After the scandal comes to light, Haggard is reported to have been "called away on a pastoral emergency."

Later, a New Lifer is quoted as praising the disgraced minister for pitch-perfect humility. "Even in repentance," he declares, "Ted modeled how to do it right."

The production sets to original songs (by Michael Friedman) moments of both reverence and irreverence: Purported explanatory e-mails from Haggard to his flock are put to music and sung as recitative by Brad Heberlee. In other interludes, the actors wander among us with their arms held toward heaven, singing piously.

All the while, a mural-size photograph of a snow-capped mountain (Pikes Peak, near Colorado Springs) looms over Debra Booth's clean, simple set; a pair of flat TV screens hang, akin to the video screens in a sprawling church, at stage left and right. Intermittently, the testimony shifts to that other key ingredient of Colorado Springs life, the outdoors: The actors now wear park-ranger gear and recite to us from guidebooks to the Rockies.

Exposure to this other facet of God's country seems altogether apt, for instruction about keeping to the right path is a preoccupation all through the show.

The actors speak directly to the audience, as if we were the ones behind the microphone. Although this device is an attempt to integrate us into the troupe's playmaking process, there are times that this egalitarian, information-gathering style leaves a vacuum. When a play's main character is a concept rather than a person, a production's emotional content can feel underdone. Some characters do recur in "This Beautiful City." But it would have been useful if some of the interviews had dug more deeply, had fleshed out stories that could have given the piece more of an emotional anchor.

Even so, the Civilians reveal, often in vibrant detail, the life of a city in which the evangelical community has become such a force. Emily Ackerman, a vital link in Arena Stage's presentation last fall of "Well," again does impressive work here, as, among others, a woman of formerly wild impulses who has found God.

Matthew Dellapina provides crackling portraits of a local muckraker and the irate father of a Jewish Air Force Academy cadet. Heberlee masters the placidity of a practiced church mouthpiece, and Marsha Stephanie Blake, Stephen Plunkett and Aysan Celik round out a very smooth ensemble.

Under Cosson's direction, the 2 1/2 -hour evangelical travelogue occasionally succumbs to bloat: Attempting to be fairly evenhanded, the troupe disgorges too many of its notebooks. By and large, however, the show unfolds as a smart, evocative set of impressions of the born-again revolution, its followers and naysayers, its folkways, beliefs and pieties.

This Beautiful City, by Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. Directed by Cosson. Musical staging, Chase Brock; sets and projections, Debra Booth; lighting, Michael Giannitti; costumes, Lorraine Venberg; sound, Erik Trester; music direction, Gabriel Mangiante; drums, Anders Eliasson; bass, Robin Rhodes. About 2 hours 30 minutes. Through June 29 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit

© 2008 The Washington Post Company