REVIEW: Church Basement Ladies

Reviewed by Sherry R. Deatrick

Pictured from left to right: Rita Thomas as Mrs. Snustad, Michelle Johnson as Signe Engelson, Tina Jo Wallace as Mavis Gilmerson, and Janet Essenpreis as Karin Engelson (back)

What’s up with all those plays set in the Prairie Home Companion part of the country? Just a few months ago, Derby Dinner brought us Life After Dad (by the author of the Don’t Hug Me series). Now, we have another silly-accented show from the great North, Church Basement Ladies. At least Dad had a plot and the usual dramatic elements. This one, a musical with book by husband and wife team Jim Stowell and Jessica Zueblke, with music and lyrics by Drew Jansen (whose credits include writing for Mystery Science Theatre 3000), reminds me of a Carol Burnett skit that outstays its welcome. It’s the Lutheran response to the corn-laden Nunsense, and if that’s your cup of tea, you’ll like it, as most of the opening night crowd did.

Inspired by the works of Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson, including the best-selling Growing Up Lutheran, the show centers around four women who seem to always be in the basement of their small-town Lutheran church, cooking ungodly concoctions like lutefisk (dried cod soaked in lye until it bloats twice its size), rommegrot (Norwegian pudding made from sour cream, milk and flour), and Watkins nectar (also known as Lutheran Kool-Aid – as opposed to that used by another pastor a few decades ago).

The time is the 1960’s. The show opens to the same Lutheran music that opened Davey and Goliath, a Lutheran puppet show that frightened me in the sixties. The Beatles are sweeping the nation. Male chauvinist Pastor Gunderson (Cary Wiger) compares the four kitchen ladies to the biblical gospel authors. But young Signe (Michelle Wagoner Johnson) thinks they are more like the Fab Four.

Mrs. Snustad (Rita Thomas) is the crone who rules the kitchen with an iron fist. Steeped in tradition, she hates the changes seeping into their church. “Communist!” she cries, when bemoaning the switch from black hymnals to red. “The Cities!” she sputters angrily, when talking about Minneapolis and St. Paul. Thomas has a lot of fun with this old biddy character, who thankfully mellows a bit by the end.

Mavis Gilmerson (Tina Jo Wallace) is going through menopause, and knows everything about everyone in town. Wallace takes Mavis way over the top, in the style of Vickie Lawrence’s Mama on Mama’s Family, and gets the most laughs with her constant butt-shaking and mugging. Her schtick of using her rear-end to open the door to the boiler room grew tiresome after the first several times.

Karin Engelson (Janet Essenpreis), Signe’s mother, is the heir apparent to the kitchen throne. She was once a wayward rebel (we never learn her big secret, unfortunately), and is now back in the fold, all prim and proper.

Cary Wiger's Pastor Gunderson is a stern disciplinarian (as are many Lutheran men, I believe - John Emil List springs to mind). His accent was a bit hard to understand though, as he sometimes slurs his words.

There are some songs, with dancing (even though Lutherans aren’t supposed to dance). The songs have clever lyrics. But, the music is quite derivative and does not stay with you after the show.
My favorite was the one extolling the virtues of bland food, “The Pale Food Polka.” Also enjoyably bizarre is one comparing and contrasting Lutherans and Catholics. And if you are not Lutheran, you probably don’t know that “This is Most Certainly True” is one of their catchphrases.

As I said, there is no plot. The women gossip and stew about various crises that arise over the course of several months, while the pastor comes down to bother them now and then. The dialog is nothing more than exposition that lasts almost the entire play. And it’s the worst kind of exposition. The “remember when” kind. And there’s a superfluous exchange where Mavis explains who is who in town and how they’re related to the pastor.

The worst part was near the end, when Signe is late for her wedding. Her face is a mess; and so is her dress. Mavis finds her in the kitchen and decides they can’t let the pastor see her like that. This thin attempt at dramatic tension was maddening.

Lee Buckholz’s splendid set design soothes the soul as Alka Seltzer to an upset tummy. Pale greens and yellows abound. The linoleum tiles gleam as if brand new, making you feel transported back in time, not just looking at a bunch of antique relics. Rachel French’s costumes are spot-on when it comes to lunch lady attire – dowdy floral prints, sensible shoes – the only thing missing was a hairnet. Ron Breedlove’s lighting creatively and subtly changes the mood during musical numbers. Barbara Cullen’s choreography was a bit sloppy, however, as evidenced by Mavis’s unsteady gait while climbing a step-stool.

The food was especially tasty on opening night. I have always bypassed the stewed tomatoes, but decided to try them this time. They were the best I’ve ever had! So sweet and tangy, and with a perfect mouthfeel. I was sorry I took only a spoonful. Likewise, the sweet potato casserole was the best ever, and again, I had only taken a spoonful. But I was too full to return for seconds. Not too full to order a slice of orange pistachio cake, though. It came between Act I and II, with delicious coffee. The cake is creamy and crunchy at the same time, with a delightful citrus flavor and luscious frosting.

The Footnotes were especially good and brought the house down with a soulful version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that almost had me weeping. All in all, the sound quality (from where I sat, anyway) was crystal clear. And as usual, the Derby Dinner staff were cheerful and prompt.

Don’t let me dissuade you from seeing this show if you are looking for some light entertainment to go with your buffet. Although the audience was lukewarm at first, as the night went on, the crowd got into the slapstick humor and had a great time. I heard one woman say “my lips hurt from smiling.” It is certainly a crowd-pleaser. I read that two sequels are already out. Move over, Nunsense!

Derby Dinner Playhouse presents
Church Basement Ladies
Written by Jim Stowell and Jessica Zueblke
Music and Lyrics by Drew Jansen

Directed by Bekki Jo Schneider
Starring Cary Wiger, Rita Thomas, Tina Jo Wallace, Janet Essenpreis, and Michelle Johnson.

Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive
Clarksville, Indiana 47129

Runs through September 25, 2011

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