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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Civilians' This Beautiful City
The above to explain why it was with some trepidation that I visited the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City to view Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis’ new production, This Beautiful City, which has music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. Commissioned and developed by the New York group, The Civilians, with the assistance of the Sundance Institute, Colorado College, and Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group, this piece had its world premiere at the 2008 Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, where it was co-produced by The Studio Theatre of Washington, D.C. Here in L.A. it is co-produced with the Vineyard Theatre in New York. So it has some pretty serious credentials. According to the program notes This Beautiful City also had "significant and ongoing support"a from Colorado Springs’ New Life Church, The Mill, the Revolution House of Prayer, Vanguard Church, the Citizens Project, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Woodmen Valley Chapel, and Coloradoans for Fairness and Equality.
My reservations notwithstanding, this is a first-class production: bright music, relevant lyrics, talented players, and a particularly beautiful set design by Neil Patel consisting of a wall of blocks of continually varying colors and patterns backedby a huge background photo of Pike’s Peak. The high quality of this production should not be a huge surprise as The Civilians have enjoyed considerable off-Broadway sucess with two other serio-comic shows with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman — Gone Missing and (I am) Nobody’s Lunch (both reviewed at Curtainup and linked below).
Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Heberlee, Brandon Miller, Stephen Plunkett and Alison Weller morph into a wide variety of Coloradoans. Here's just a sampling of characters to whom they give voice: an atheist who makes her living selling those metal Darwin fishes that mock the Jesus fishes that adorn the back of many Christians’ cars. . . the three members of a cowboy band called the Colorado Wranglers. . . a Celtic Wiccan whose family sends him to a camp to be cured of being gay. . .people who disdain the powerful bullying tactics of the Reverend Dobson’s Focus on the Family. . . as well as ministers like Pastor "Ted" Haggard, the founder of the New Life Church who grew his ministry into a megachurch with a congregation of 14,000. In a nod to the recent scandal at the Air Force Academy iwe hear Mike Weinstein, the father of a Jewish cadet, charge the Academy administration with allowing Christian cadets to proselytize and evangelize their classmates.
Some of the groups and individuals named and portrayed are apparently authentic; others I’m not sure about. But in a city with 510 churches for a population of 372,000, any church is possible. At any rate it all includes some powerfully delivered musical sermons. Though the company is known for its way with irony and paradox, This Beautiful City's aims at all-around fairness and consequently comes off as something of a hallelujah for that old time revivalist religion as practiced in Colorado Springs.
[I am} Nobody's Lunch