What made Colorado Springs such fertile ground for Ted Haggard's megachurch and Christian organizations like James Dobson's Focus on the Family? The New York theater company the Civilians traveled to the city and interviewed a cross section of the community, and the result is This Beautiful City, a "docu-musical" that is being presented by StageQ at the Bartell Theater.
It's always engaging, this exploration of a city and its citizens, who weren't afraid to share their stories. At times broad and condescending, it is also, often, witty, provocative and poignant.
We learn from members of the community how the stars aligned to make Colorado Springs a capitol for evangelicalism. Strategic economic development plans welcomed Christian nonprofits, and the rustic beauty beckoned to Haggard, who came up with the concept for his New Life Church while communing with God on a "nature fast."
Meanwhile, secular progressives and atheists view the changes to their city with wariness and concern. Adding to the tumult are two ballot initiatives, one offering rights to same sex couples and the other banning gay marriage.
Haggard's spectacular rise and fall are at the center of the play. Haggard was the leader of New Life's 14,000-member congregation and the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, 30 million strong. He regularly conferred with the Bush administration, even meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon in Israel. Then he was brought down by a scandal involving meth and a gay prostitute, and booted out of his church and the entire state of Colorado. His story elicits a wide variety of responses from the cast: smug gloating, dismay, concern, fear.
The cast members, who play multiple roles, each have moments to shine. Sarah O'Hara is completely believable as a young mom and former drug user who found comfort and hope at New Life, even as her father's homosexuality gives her insights into Haggard's tortured duality. Jim Chiolino, as a high-ranking New Life official, likewise fully inhabits his character. At first he is proud of what his church has become, and then he is pained by the scandal, pointing out that faith is easy until it's tested.
As the new pastor at Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church, Gregory Brumfield taps into the powerful oratorical rhythms of a dynamic preacher. By the end of his sermon, I was buying what he was selling. Tom Collins, as the Jewish, Republican, career military father whose son attended the nearby Air Force Academy, rails passionately against what he perceives as an evangelical coup in the military. Peggy Rosin plays a transgendered former city planner who is eloquent about wanting to belong to a faith that doesn't welcome her anymore.
As with The Laramie Project, the play's dialog is pulled from interviews. I marvel at the sincere, funny, self-aware insights of the interviewees. (Sometimes they're not so self-aware.) Respecting those words, which seem so generously shared, is paramount. The play works best when the actors are really taking care to tell the stories sincerely. It strays into disingenuous territory when cast members approach their roles in a "wink-wink" fashion.
It's a long show, clocking in at two and half hours. If 30 minutes or so were jettisoned, it would be stronger, telling the story more efficiently and with greater impact. I would also be inclined to ditch the music. That's not a slam against the talented musicians and singers. There are some catchy standout songs; some would seem quite at home in a youth-ministry service. But the text is the star, and some of the songs muddle the messages.
This show got me thinking about how I view religion, and about compassion, forgiveness, tolerance and faith. Not bad for a Saturday night.