The setting for the forthright musical This Beautiful City is Colorado Springs in 2006, around the time of that year’s midterm elections. There, a Rocky Mountain high prevails: Evangelicals galore are getting high on Jesus. That’s bad news for non-believers. It’s even worse news for anyone following an alternative lifestyle. The faithful, with their frozen, imbued smiles, are fighting a ballot measure that would acknowledge same-sex domestic partnerships. The locus for all the fire and brimstone is the New Life Church, founded by Ted Haggard.
Into this pit of intolerance ventured the Civilians, an investigative theater company from New York City. Its interviews with principals on both sides of the holy war resulted in This Beautiful City, written by the group’s Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman (who passed away last year from complications related to HIV/AIDS). Though it debuted 10 years ago, This Beautiful City is only now receiving its San Diego premiere: at Diversionary Theatre under the direction of Matt Morrow. The production there is spirited and wonderfully performed. It boasts an ardent, versatile ensemble of actors, all portraying multiple persons in the Colorado Springs maelstrom. The standouts are Michael Cusimano and Tony Houck, who besides their characterizations play guitar and keyboards respectively.
The tone of the show wavers between parodying the nearly too cultish to parody evangelicals and striking serious chords about the hate masquerading as love that beset the picturesque Colorado community. When the scandal surrounding Haggard (which led to his downfall) arrives, This Beautiful City goes from simmer to boil.
Much of the time, the humor is more persuasive than the show’s quieter moments, some of them as sanctimonious as the sanctimony being assailed. Throughout, however, the musical numbers of Friedman reverberate with emotion in the small but acoustically sound Diversionary space.
Its presence on the local theater scene now, when holiday fluff will soon take over almost completely, guarantees that thoughtful alternatives are available. This Beautiful City asks its audiences to ponder the true meaning of love and good will.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/21/18.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.