Reasons to believe (or not)

The Wilbury Group's 'This Beautiful City'
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  September 24, 2014

SHE IS RISEN The 'Beautiful' crew. [Photo by Nile Hawver]

To non-believers, the evangelical movement can look like a loud, friendly party whose invitation we’ve politely declined, but whose windows sooner or later we can’t help peeking into.

The Wilbury Group is staging a well-tempered production of This Beautiful City, which gets into a fascinating, and scandalous, example of the phenomenon. It’s directed by Josh Short, with music direction by Brien Lang and Milly Romanzi.

This is not so much a musical as a play with music, written by Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson). The 2008 production was based on interviews conducted by the Civilians, a Brooklyn-based “investigative theater” which serves “as an engine of artistic and social innovation.” Since 2001, subjects have ranged from a self-mocking failure to expose anything dastardly done to geese during filming of Fly Away Home by Walt Disney Studios, through a retelling of the Paris uprising of 1871, to a musical about pornography that is currently in development.

Ensemble songs, along the momentum-halting lines of “It’s a Long Road to Colorado,” are short and unmemorable. But the music is ably provided by the briefly tenured Colorado Wranglers Band, consisting of Romanzi on keyboard, Tom Grace on drums, and Lang on string instruments.

This Beautiful City doesn’t have a plot, just a continuity. With projections illustrating or complementing the discourse, we are presented with observations and experiences of numerous people in Colorado Springs, mostly unnamed, centering around the New Life Church and its founding pastor, Ted Haggard, whose secret life of indulging in crystal meth and at least one male prostitute led to his downfall.

At the opening we’re oriented by an animated woman, portrayed with wide-eyed innocence by Melissa Penick. She recently came to town for a new job and feels that the move was God-inspired when she learns that there are 15 Christian nonprofit organizations there. Similarly sensing divine travel instructions, another young woman (Clara Weishahn) says that in an empty room she felt a hand on her shoulder and a voice instructing her to stay.

We are next addressed by a townie (Weishahn), and the contrast may be a little heavy-handed: an atheist raised by gay parents, she is concerned about the influence of so many adamant Christians on her child. The New Life Church — the huge building is “a monstrosity,” she sputters — has been increasing its congregation for 21 years by this point and now has 14,000 members.

Not all the issues that come up are purely local. Two statewide referendums appear on the ballot, one extending benefits to domestic partnerships and the other defining marriage as heterosexual; the first is defeated and the second is passed. We get the perspective of one affected person (Jo-án Peralta), who went through aversion therapy to “cure” him of homosexuality but is now comfortably himself. Similarly, we get the point of view of an elegant transsexual (Weishahn) who remains Christian (after a nine-month hiatus) by choosing to pay attention to Jesus rather than to those condemning her. She decides that evangelicals “are renegades — they have hijacked Christianity and are heading toward the rocks.”

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