I’ve been trying to avoid the phrase “Laramie Project Lite” to describe “This Beautiful City” because it sounds diminutive and not altogether laudatory. But I don’t mean it that way. Compared to the monumental, ambitious, sometimes harrowing “Laramie,” just about anything seems more lightweight. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For instance, “This Beautiful City” is also light as in funny. Sometimes very funny. And that suits the subject given that the true story of Ted Haggard is sort of tragicomic – with big doses of Schadenfreude mixed in – versus the outright tragedy of Matthew Shepard.
Ultimately, I don’t think you can avoid invoking “Laramie” when talking about TBC because of a very good reason: both shows do an exceptional job of developing a sense of place, of presenting the story of a whole community, not just of a handful of characters in a specific setting. That broad-based sociological perspective is one of the things that make TBC a fascinating piece of theater. While essentially a documentary, the show enhances the dialogue lifted directly from interviews by wrapping some of it in song – spare, simply melodic songs by Michael Friedman – that are delivered exceedingly well by the cast in RTP’s production.
Some of the most riveting scenes involve juxtapositions of different viewpoints where the political is rendered dramatically personal. Each cast member plays multiple roles and, among the many exceptional portrayals by Andrew Hamm, the most bracing is of Mikey Weinstein whose stunning rebuke of the “churchification” of the military plays out next to a group of Air Force cadets earnestly declaring their faith as expressed in on-base prayer groups. And while I expect there is a field-day of parody that could be had in the explication of Ted Haggard’s hypocrisy and whack-job denial of his sexuality, TBC is ultimately more effective and intriguing by focusing on people’s reactions, from confusion to anger to glee.
However (did you sense there was a however coming?), the “research project” perspective also contributes to some of the shows problems. While a remarkable majority of the scenes present full-bodied, well-rounded characters, a couple still ended up presenting caricatures. And while that may be unavoidable, it left me feeling like the authors were trying to have their cake and eat it to, at least a little bit. We are clearly meant to empathize with the empowered trans girl (a flawless portrayal by Lanaya Burnette) but laugh at the Revolution House of Prayer zealots. There is reverence and respect in songs like “Freedom” and “Urban Planning” while a teenage girl’s confusion is wrapped up in the joke of a song, “Whatever.” It’s seems like if you are going to present these characters with dignity, don’t they all deserve respect?
But even as I write that, I realize I’m overthinking this a bit, which is also ultimately a good indictor of the value of this show, at least in my opinion. This is a show that could have been largely a joke at Ted Haggard’s expense or an over-obvious put-down of hypocrisy and, instead, ends up being reflective and thought-provoking, not to mention very entertaining.
I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight each member of the cast, since each has at least one moment – usually many moments – where they do great work. I loved the brittleness Christy Mullins gave to the Colorado Springs Economic Development Woman. Scott Melton’s Associate Pastor at Haggard’s church seems genuinely lost when Haggard’s “indiscretions” are exposed. Tarnee Kendell Hudson has many delightful moments but none so powerful as her turn as a New Pastor at the Emmanuel Church. And, in a scene both deceptively simple and insightfully complex, Jason Campbell renders Haggard’s son Marcus with refreshing regular-guy straightforwardness.
As far as its technical aspects, this is not a production I would place among RTP’s best. The set (by Philip Milone) is simply functional with pianist Kim Fox (who does a fine job as musical director) and a percussionist placed neatly in two islands. But having video and slides projected on a loose sheet evokes community theater, as does the somewhat flat and spotty lighting. The costumes (by Ashley Davis) were also fine, though I thought some, like the Emmanuel Choir Member outfit, were a bit cartoonish.
I hadn’t been planning to see TBC and was lucky that last night opened up so I could. If I were you, I wouldn’t count on luck; make plans to see it now or it’ll be gone before you know it.