Now like a bracing gale blowing off the icy plains of Minnesota comes an honest-to-god Lutheran comedy: Church Basement Ladies, the final production of the 2008 summer season at Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse. Some of the group dynamic borrows from Steel Magnolias (Louisiana) and an extended hot-flash riff has been lifted from Menopause: The Musical (Florida), but the five characters in Church Basement Ladies speak their own authentic language, which sounds a bit like Fargo-ese. The affirmation “Yeaaaaah” runs to a syncopated five syllables.
Although making its east-of-the-Mississippi premiere in Auburn, Church Basement Ladies
is already a box-office phenomenon. Since its debut in Minneapolis
three years ago, the show has drawn audiences of more than 300,000 in
cities like Des Moines and Milwaukee and even in college towns like
Madison, Wis. Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon sagas prepared the ground
here two decades ago, but the origin for this show is co-authors Janet
Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson’s series of regional bestsellers, such
as Growing Up Lutheran: What Does This Mean?, filled with gags that make their way into Church Basement Ladies.
Unlike Lake Wobegon, Ladies is
loaded with Norwegian dialect words and recipes so that a glossary is
required in the program. Often the humor turns on the blandness of
Lutheran food, as in this crack about the rivalry with Catholicism:
“They have miracles galore, but we’ve got Miracle Whip.”
The husband-and-wife team of Jim Stowell and Jessica
Zuehlke hammered the many anecdotes into a kind of commedia dell’arte
storyline in which five characters do their shtick without much thought
of resolution until toward of the end of the second act. They are a
rather chic mother and daughter, Karin Engelson, pronounced “KAH-rin”
(Valerie Fagan), and Signe (Julie Marie Taylor). In the first act, set
in 1964, young Signe speaks of an interest in the Beatles, who have
just emerged on the scene. But this signals neither rebellion nor the
introduction of any heavier rhythms into Drew Jansen’s undistinguished
More upsetting is Signe’s declaration that she sees little difference between putting real or artificial potatoes in the lefse,
a kind of Norwegian tortilla. Closer still to real tension is her
flirtation with a cute Catholic boy, which comes to nothing. Her
engagement to a good Lutheran boy followed by her nuptials brings a
conclusion to the second act.
The mother-daughter duo is surrounded by three comic
performers, each with a set of in-character gags and routines. Stealing
scenes continually is tall, blonde Mavis Gilmerson (Greta Grosch), an
uninhibited earth mother who’s going through “The Change,” as she keeps
reminding us. She’s Church Basement’s singular creation, a
Viking comedienne. In a defining routine, she throws her capacious
posterior against a frozen door jam, forcing it open, and shouting, “Uff Da!” (Wow!)
As we have been conditioned to think of
“tall” and “blonde” as glamorous (e.g. Erin Nordegren, Mrs. Tiger
Woods), it’s hard to think of a precedent for such a character,
possibly the 50ish Cloris Leachman crossed with the bumptiousness of
Kathy Bates in About Schmidt. To play this unique role, MGR has
imported Greta Grosch from Minneapolis, who was in the original
production and has since done it more than 1,000 times.
Pinched, gray-curled Vivian Snustad (MGR favorite Maureen
Quigley) initially looks like a cliche, an avatar of Max Bialystock’s
senior backers in The Producers, the Ruth Buzzi character on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,
or Archie Comics’ Miss Grundy. In this mode she gets off some superior
funnies, as in her lines from the second act’s number “The Cities,” in
which she denounces Minneapolis-St. Paul as the “Sodom and Gomorrah of
the Prairies.” But Stowell and Zuehlke surprise us by giving Vivian a
character arc. They also allow half of the best duet, the only touching
song in the show, “For Good,” with Signe.
As the only male in the company, Pastor E.L. Gunderson
(Ed Romanoff) is far from being the only rooster in the henhouse.
Instead of asserting his authority, he squanders it on well-meaning
cluelessness, like delivering a gift of such exotica as vegetarian
lasagna, or as Mavis describes it, “Veg-er-tarian lasagna.” Not
only male but what passes for an authoritarian figure in the
egalitarian society of the East Cornucopia Lutheran Church of the
Prairie, Pastor Gunderson is the only one with enough dignity to be
lost when dressing up in a ridiculous costume toward the finale.
Musical director Mark Goodman puts as good a gloss as is
possible on Drew Jansen’s original score, which might have served for a
Paramount musical of the 1940s. Travis Lope’s costumes call for some
unique innovations, like Wonder Bread bags that serve as lightweight
galoshes. Scenic designer Scott Herbst, together with lighting designer
Mark Romig, evoke off-stage blizzards, even on warm September evenings.
MGR artistic director Ed Sayles saw Church Basement Ladies in
the Midwest and imported director Curt Wollan, who helmed the original
production in September 2005, to direct. This is a departure from
recent tradition of having the post-Labor Day show be a low-maintenance
musical review. Sayles has an unerring sense of what his audience will
embrace, and all those gags about the smelly and inedible lutefisk (dried
cod) travel very well, as do all the jibes against Catholicism in
heavily Catholic Auburn. The Little Sisters of Hoboken should watch
out: Many will find this krumkake pretty yummy.
This production runs through Oct. 2. See Times Table for information.