Like disgraced evangelist Ted Haggard, who is the focal point if not the subject of the show, This Beautiful City rides high on a wave of infectious energy through the climax of its first act, then loses its way.
It's one of those "who would have thought?" concepts. The authors and cast traveled to Colorado Springs — home of Haggard's New Life mega-church, plus Focus on the Family and other assorted religious institutions — to interview some of its Evangelical citizens, both leaders and laypeople, along with members of the broader community. Out of this material a musical, or a play with music, about the Evangelical movement and its influence on the city was to be fashioned.
It's not the first time a theatrical piece has been created from collected or found materials. One that comes to mind is the Collapsable Giraffe's Damfino. But the subject matter here is pretty juicy, and as luck (or Satan) would have it, the story of Haggard's drug abuse and secret gay sex life broke just then, giving the visiting New Yorkers an unexpected dramatic turning point for their creation.
The characters they interviewed — charismatic preachers and gay rights activists, believers and nonbelievers, militants and military, angry folk and scary folk — are an extremely colorful assortment, and the cast of six has a grand time embodying them all. A little bit Our Town, a little bit A Chorus Line, a little bit Godspell, and a tiny speck of Red, White and Blaine, the show also shares the high-spirited pop sensibility of Avenue Q, another enjoyable but less-than-great product of the Vineyard Theatre. The acting is consistently good and the production quality — lighting, projections, sound — top-notch, every bit as modern and perfect as one has grown to expect from a high-end off-Broadway production.
The singing is less than awesome, and the score is competent but unremarkable, but this didn't bother me much, especially during the first act. For one thing, because of their genesis, many of the lyrics are conversational. And in any case, the characters are so interesting and well played that they seem more like real people than like multi-talented members of Actors' Equity.
The monologues, songs, and scenes are cleverly arranged to always be addressing an audience, either the explorers from New York or a church congregation; hence we, the theater audience, feel engaged, sometimes intensely, by the excitement of born-again religion in the age of Christian rock and universal electronic communication. The production numbers succeed brilliantly in demonstrating what makes these churches appealing.
Haggard himself, up until his fall from grace, is mostly evoked rather than seen. This seems to have been the right choice, as the focus remains on the spectrum of life in Colorado Springs, where the Evangelical movement coexists squirmily with townies, liberals, gays, and competing religious denominations. When Haggard is caught arranging a drug deal with a male prostitute, the crushing blow brings down the curtain on Act One.
But instead of turning a corner and taking us somewhere new and interesting, the show loses focus. Act Two deals with the characters' reaction to the Great Leader's crash and burn, but only fitfully. Other characters intercede with unrelated storytelling. The highlight of the second half is a superb delivery of a sermon by Marsha Stephanie Blake as a Baptist preacher, but its message of personal responsibility is too powerful in itself to reflect on Haggard's situation, which we're already starting to forget about.
This is a thought-provoking play which I won't forget about. But one of those thoughts will be about how much better it would be if its flow were sustained through its full length. This failure comes not from a lack of stagecraft (plenty) or talent available to express it (abundant), but from the lack of a plot. Interesting characters and a lone dramatic twist can take us only so far. In Act One we get to know and appreciate these people. After that, nothing really happens. Plotless musicals (e.g. A Chorus Line) have succeeded, but it seems to be a very, very difficult trick to pull off.
This Beautiful City is at the Vineyard Theater; visit their ticket page for ticket information. Photo by Carol Pratt of Stephen Plunkett, Brad Heberlee, and Emily Ackerman.