Monday, February 23, 2009

This Beautiful City


By Steven Cosson & Jim Lewis, music by Michael Friedman. Directed by Steven Cosson. The Civilians at the Vineyard Theatre. (CLOSED)

The Civilians' newest docu-theater/musical piece about the evangelical-Christian capital Colorado Springs gets a mostly respectful hearing but few resounding alleluias. Most critics appreciate the show's surprisingly evenhanded approach, while others perceive the lack of a strong point of view as a deficit, and more than a few feel they've heard and seen it all before. The outlier thus far is Talkin' Broadway's Matthew Murray, who apparently has no trouble perceiving the Civilians' point of view.

New Yorker A
With wit and empathy, the group re├źnacts, splices, and, in inspired instances, musicalizes the interviews they conducted of local residents, from a transgendered woman struggling to reconcile her Christian faith to the God-fearing folks at RHOP—Revolution House of Prayer. Aside from their theatrical panache, the Civilians deserve credit as top-notch journalists, creating portraits that are vivid, agenda-free, and marked by a benevolent irony. Their investigation probes not only the absurdity of American dogma but the unquenchable thirst for redemption that propels it.

Backstage A
(Adam R. Perlman) Haggard's fall from cozy Coloradoan grace consumes large chunks of the second act, but in the first we get to know the people of Colorado Springs, who simply think of Haggard as Pastor Ted...The script by Jim Lewis and director Steven Cosson does well to capture that without depicting shrill insensitivity versus shrill insensitivity. But it's in uncovering lesser-seen details where the Civilians are invaluable: the way an agnostic youth accepts the church because it's just easier, how a transgendered woman forges a new relationship with God, the cycle where openness leads to repression leads to openness. The company...has a way with these roles that's halfway between Method reenactment and an impression of a close friend. It's compassionate--you must, of course, love anyone you play--but not so much as to bury the cosmic absurdity...Perhaps the best perspective is that of Neil Patel's set design. Gazing down from above on Colorado Springs, it's a god's-eye view. We can project what we want onto the individual houses, but mainly we're reminded of how little we know of what goes on inside them.

Variety A-
(Marilyn Stasio) Performing entirely without attitude, company members inhabit the personae of local residents who sat down for interviews about their churches, their political beliefs and their glassy-eyed commitment to their faith. There's a nowhere feeling to Neil Patel's abstract set of plasticine cubes, stacked against a distant skyline, that from time to time light up in violently vivid hues...If there's any sly criticism or condescension in these admirably open portraits, it lurks in the grotesquely awful lyrics of Michael Friedman's amusing pastiche score...The company proves much too stingy with testimony about Dobson's super-influential Focus on the Family.

The New York Times B+
(Charles Isherwood) Engaging, inquisitive and evenhanded...You might assume that members of a hip New York theater company would descend on the country’s epicenter of evangelism like a swarm of junior Michael Moores, wielding tape recorders like rapiers, backpacks stuffed full of snark. But the Civilians, known for the long-running revue “Gone Missing” and other documentary shows, have generally used humor to illuminate our follies rather than to sneer at our frailties...Emily Ackerman is terrific in a couple of memorable roles...As directed by Mr. Cosson “This Beautiful City” is perhaps too inclusive and loosely structured.

Time Out NY B+
(Adam Feldman) Much of this enlightening and often moving collage draws a Venn diagram of religious faith and homosexuality, with special attention to where they overlap...By Civilians standards, This Beautiful City is circumscribed: Its borders of time and place give it something like a plot. Spurred by Michael Friedman’s irregular musical interludes (which add more color than depth this time), Cosson’s six performers play dozens of characters, and all have shining moments...In less capable hands, the show might have slid into slippery condescension, but Cosson and his company are too smart for that. They’re on the side of the angels.

Associated Press B+
(Michael Kuchwara) A lively docudrama...a two-act parade of speeches, some more insightful and theatrical than others, which trace the movement's rise in popularity and political power...features a genial, twangy score by Michael Friedman...Not surprisingly, the production's most dramatic moments occur during an interview with Haggard's son Marcus--well-played by Stephen Plunkett--as he haltingly talks about New Life and his father's problems...To its credit, "This Beautiful Life" doesn't sensationalize. There's an evenhandedness to its presentation, even when it tarries too long with some of the more strident evangelicals. That generosity of spirit seems fitting for a show that examines religion in all its conflicted diversity.

New York Post B+
(Frank Scheck) In terms of provocative material, you can't do better than religion, drugs and gay sex. Naturally, the scandal dominates this new documentary music-theater piece by the iconoclastic company...At times, there's an annoying self-consciousness to the proceedings, as when a member (Alison Weller) of an organization dubbed the Revolution House of Prayer says, "I don't think of myself as a religious freak...but if I see a woman in your play with a big bee hairdo and Tammy Faye makeup, I'm going to know it's me"...While "This Beautiful City" feels a little after the fact and lacks the conceptual originality of such previous pieces by The Civilians as "Gone Missing," it's an entertaining and thoughtful portrait of a large segment of society that's all too easy to ignore from this side of the country.

NY Daily News B
(Joe Dziemianowicz) A humbly praiseworthy piece of investigative theater...[The Haggard] scandal, and its aftershocks, get a lot of attention in the two-hour show. Perhaps too much, considering that the case is so well-known and doesn't really illuminate the play's big picture about faith and freedom and the often blurry line between personal beliefs and politics. Nonetheless, what writers Steve Cosson (who also directs) and Jim Lewis, who conducted interviews along with the cast, have come up with is a quirky, occasionally fascinating collage...These Colorado folks are marvelously brought to life in monologues and songs by six terrific actors, who all play several parts. Michael Friedman's songs vary in flavor, from country-Western and pop to grabby Christian rock..."This Beautiful City" isn't as fresh or deliver the cumulative wallop of the Civilians' "Gone Missing," which concerned loss, but it earns a hosanna or two for evenhandedness.

CurtainUp B
(Elyse Sommer) Though one would expect a group like the Civilians to tilt towards satirizing the more disturbing elements of excessive religiosity, especially its influence on the body politic, the right wingers are not presented as monsters and the power of faith is given as fair a hearing as the right to be different and independent. The rather touching monologue by Ted Haggard's son Marcus is a case in point. Still, a theater piece like this tends to be rather bland and emotionally uninvolving without the fire generated by a more opinionated script, and it's only the awsomely [sic] versatile performances and the liveliness added by Friedman's songs and the dynamic staging, that keeps this from happening. Each of the six actors who make up the cast is a star, with perhaps Stephen Plunkett and Marsha Stephanie Blake the standouts...This Beautiful City would benefit from being trimmed to the same 90 minutes as the long-running and more generally entertaining Gone Missing.

Village Voice B-
(Michael Feingold) A sort of tentative younger brother to Tectonic Theater's The Laramie Project...The Civilians went to Colorado Springs looking for a reality to map, and found themselves with a story to tell instead...The shift from panoramic survey to linear narrative makes This Beautiful City bumpier in structure and less certain in focus than it should be. Like many groups today, the Civilians get itchy about making narrative too tidy. So the show skitters through some digressive moments, particularly at the end where, after a piece that wraps up the narrative's ironies perfectly, it dwindles into anticlimax. Uncertainty, too, haunts Michael Friedman's lively songs...Much of the staging (by Cosson, with choreography by John Carrafa) has ease, power, and clarity, making the slacker moments seem all the more a pity. A more purposive trip through, centered on the story rather than the place, could have made this intelligent, interesting piece a real gem.

Offoffonline B-
(Laura Palotie) 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...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...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...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.

Theatermania C+
(David Finkle) While the company's findings, presented here by way of both monologues (crafted by Steven Cosson and Jim Lews [sic] from actual interviews by the company) and Michael Friedman's ditties, are definitely attention-grabbing, the news they're reporting is a little late in the day...Under the consistently fluid direction of Cosson (aided by John Carrafa's choreography), the cast...have stepped forward with their impressive skills to present the kind of balanced view of a troubled population that Anna Deavere Smith established as a valid theatrical style with her seminal works. Unfortunately, their work is somewhat undercut by Friedman's songs, which are surprisingly generic...Meanwhile, set designer Neil Patel presents Colorado Springs as a blocky gray unit suggesting fairly modern facades that lighting designer David Weiner occasionally transforms into even more abstract shapes with flashing colors...Ultimately a perfectly acceptable evening in the theater, but one hopes the ever-inquisitive troupe will soon serve up a better future documentary.

Newsday C-
(Linda Winer) An intriguing notion but, ultimately, a pretty shapeless and self-explanatory musical journey through the minds and hearts of the cultural and religious phenomenon in the shadow of Pikes Peak. Six chameleonic talents transform with compassion and wit into a variety of believers and the residents who resent them. The company just happened to have been doing its research when Haggard was outed internationally as what someone calls a "closet case and a meth queen." Although a great stroke of journalistic luck, the gay-hypocrite sensationalism appears to have derailed author-director Steven Cosson and co-writer Jim Lewis from a deeper investigation of a community unfazed by concerns about the separation of church and state. C-
(Stan Richardson) This quasi-musical docudrama about the citizens of Colorado Springs and their passionate faith or furious faithlessness in the evangelical movement is provocative to me solely in the sense that it did not provoke me in the least and I think it should've...What am I expecting, the Civilians to revolutionize the form of documentary theatre? It'd be nice and perhaps that was their intention. But it is almost impossible to do when such a company seems so overimpressed with the fortunate coincidence of the Haggard scandal breaking in the very midst of their fieldwork that they have overlooked the not-deep-enough-penetration of their own material...This Beautiful City includes highly nuanced performances.

Talkin' Broadway D+
(Matthew Murray) The remotest, most condescendingly partisan, and least involving Civilians piece yet. Although The Civilians don’t directly attack evangelicals, they hardly present them in a positive light. Most of the time they don’t even try...The most sympathetic figure is a pre-op male-to-female transsexual who speaks passionately of being discriminated against and unceremoniously fired - played, it’s worth noting, by a female (Emily Ackerman)...Presenting a biological male as an outright female is insulting to the audience...Such legerdemain paints This Beautiful City as agenda theatre rather than documentary theatre. But worse, it makes it uninvolving theatre...Cosson’s staging is smart and concise on Neil Patel’s mod set; David Weiner’s anxious lights complete the potent mixture edginess and safety. Friedman's combination hoedown-raveup songs are evanescently catchy, and John Carrafa’s bare-bones choreography is functional but nondescript...But no one involved convinces you that this story needs to be told this way and with this attitude.

New Yorker A 13; Backstage A 13; Variety A- 12; The New York Times B+ 11; TONY B+ 11; Associated Press B+ 11; NYP B+ 10; NY Daily News B 10; CurtainUp B 10; Village Voice B- 9; Offoffonline B- 9; Theatermania C+ 8; Newsday C- 6; Nytheatre C- 6; Talkin' Broadway D+ 5; TOTAL: 144/15=9.6 (B)

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