“This Beautiful City” is Colorado Springs, Colo., the headquarters of the outspoken Evangelical Christians of the religious and political right and home to more than 80 national religious organizations. So, before I continue, let me reveal where I’m coming from. I’m Jewish, and I strongly object to the current movement to subvert the Constitution and conjoin church and state in America. Moreover, my cosmopolitan daughter, who was born in Africa during our family’s seven years on that continent, who spent her junior year in college at the Sorbonne, and enlisted as a six-month volunteer in the Israeli navy after she graduated, now teaches race, religion and gender Issues at — you guessed it — the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Talk about not preaching to the choir!
So 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. The play, commissioned and developed by a group called The Civilians, with the assistance of the Sundance Institute, Colorado College, and Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group, 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. The play also had “significant and ongoing support,” according to the program notes, 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.
All that having been said, I have to note that the musical is a first-class production: bright music, relevant lyrics, talented players, and a particularly beautiful set design by Neil Patel which consists of a wall of blocks which continually varies its colors and patterns and is backed up by a huge background photo of Pike’s Peak.
The six players in the production morph into a wide variety of Coloradoans, giving voice and presence to people they had interviewed individually and personally. The players include Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Heberlee, Brandon Miller, Stephen Plunkett and Alison Weller. Their characters include an atheist who makes her living selling those metal Darwin fishes that mock the Jesus fishes that adorn the back of many Christians’ cars. Three players become a band called the Colorado Wranglers, another depicts a Celtic Wiccan whose family sends him to a camp to be cured of being gay. There are players who disdain the powerful bullying tactics of the Reverend Dobson’s Focus on the Family, and one who portrays Pastor “Ted” Haggard, the founder of the New Life Church who grew his ministry into a megachurch with a congregation of 14,000.
At one point a preacher describes Downtown Colorado Springs as “Satan’s personal den of iniquity,” filled with “hippies from Colorado College.” Another minister urges the citizens to get to know God: to undergo the conversion experience and “let the selfish part of yourself die.”
“If you learn to listen, God will speak to you,” he says.
There is also a nod to the recent scandal at the Air Force Academy in which Mike Weinstein, the father of a Jewish cadet, charges the Academy administration with allowing Christian cadets to proselytize and evangelize their classmates. The practice is rampant throughout the military academies, he alleges, and is tolerated all the way to the Pentagon, or, as he calls it, “the Pentacostagon.” There is a “hierarchy of demons,” according to the members of the Revolution House of Prayer, and a “right to life” woman makes a case that “babies need the right to choose.” There are powerfully delivered sermons, a musical number called “End Times” and another about “Demons and Angels.” Some of the groups and individuals named in the show 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. There’s even one in the Springs called the Israelite Church of God in Christ.
“This Beautiful City” is an interesting production, but you can’t really call it a “play.” It’s merely a series of statements and opinions, and even though it makes an attempt at fairness and irony and paradox, it is mostly a paean to that old time religion as practiced in Colorado Springs.
Kirk Douglas, for whom the theater was named, was sitting with his wife in the front row. I could only wonder what he, a dedicated and committed Jew, thought of the show.
“This Beautiful City” will continue at the Kirk Douglas Theatre Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. through Oct. 26. The theater is located at 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City and tickets can be reserved by calling (213) 628-2772.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.