At a time when several community theater companies are wringing their hands in search of new venues, Steve and Marguerite Beebe’s Encore Productions has come up with a plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face solution: Be site-specific. So when it comes to the musical review Church Basement Ladies, the show that won the heart of small-town Minnesota, what could be better than, well, a church? Specifically, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 5402 W. Genesee St., Camillus, opposite Friendly’s restaurant. Only this Basement’s not in their basement, but moved upstairs to the main worship area, under the high, modernist nave. The altar and front of the sanctuary is now walled off by painted scenery. This tends to smooth out some of the edgier jokes.
Church Basement Ladies, kind of a Protestant answer to Nunsense, opened in Minnesota in 2005, and then swept the prairies like, ahem, wildfire, playing every available hall and church basement in the state for years. Ed Sayles, Merry-Go-Round Playhouse’s canny artistic director, observed the frenzy and decided to give the show its east-of-the-Mississippi premiere in Auburn in September 2008, where is did great post-Labor Day box office. Director Patti Laird, helming this production, was assistant stage manger in Auburn and also worked on national tours of Basement and its sequels.
Before Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon and the Coen Brothers’ movie Fargo, the flat, frigid state of Minnesota was not thought of as a tinderbox for comedy, but it has recently become a rival of Brooklyn and New Jersey. Many of the gags in the show derive from a series of regional bestsellers under the generic title of Growing Up Lutheran by Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson. Much humor turns on the blandness of Lutheran food. Two writers named Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke hammered this into a show with a dynamic vaguely resembling Steel Magnolias: In a basement kitchen, place three comic older women, plus a comic pastor, and a younger woman facing marriage. Not to worry, though, the bride faces no health problems.
Drew Jansen put together all the music and lyrics, all of which might have gone well in a Paramount musical of, say, 1942. There’s not a melody in it that will stay in your head long enough to reach the parking lot, but several numbers, for celebration or the reconciliation of opposites, are dramatically effective. Most of the musical numbers comprise a kind of commedia d’ell arte in which characters deliver their own shtick without moving the story line. The entire score is delivered here heroically by unseen piano soloist David Sabin, once a regular with Earl Colvin’s defunct Theatre a la Carte.
The basement of the title lies under the East Cornucopia Lutheran Church of the Prairie, miles away from the fleshpots of the Twin Cities. The first act is set at Christmas 1964, when The Beatles were new on the scene, but there is no mention of military escalation in Vietnam. At the center of the action are the mother Karin, pronounced “KAH-rin” (M. Marie Beebe, the show’s executive artistic director) and her daughter Signe (Marlina Beebe, also assistant artistic director). Both Beebes make sure Karin and Signe are cut from the same silhouette and sound like variations of one another. Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher could never have done it convincingly. Signe is not a rebellious child, but she is much taken with that moptopped quartet from Liverpool, England (uh-oh). And she finds a certain Catholic boy to be really cute. . .
Karin and Signe often find themselves between two polar opposites: the earthy, flamboyant Mavis Gilmerson (Kathy Egloff) and the anal-retentive Vivian Snustad (Victoria King). Egloff’s Mavis throws her posterior against the perpetually jammed furnace door, and is given to raising up her skirt to ward off hot flashes driven by “the change.” Menopause is the subject of Mavis’ big number, “My Own Personal Island,” in which she compares her body to Jamaica and the Bahamas. Compared to the character as written, Egloff is positively dainty, but her well-honed timing still makes her Basement’s top laugh-getter.
Victoria King studied under former Syracuse Stage honcho Arthur Storch at Actors’ Studio where she earned an M.F.A., but she is much more at home with Vivian musically and comically. When cheapskate Vivian marches in from a snowstorm with old Wonder Bread bags wrapped around her feet, the moment is unexploited. King’s Vivian succeeds in two top musical numbers, starting with “The Cities,” sung with eerie flashlights under the chin. Minneapolis-St. Paul are the “Sodom and Gomorrah of the prairies,” filled with “shame and degradation and secular temptation.” Then in one of the few unexpected turns in Basement, Vivian becomes the only character to traverse a dramatic arc, leading to “For Good,” her reconciliation duet with young Signe.
The audience at St. Luke’s Episcopal appreciated the portrayal of the one male in the show, Pastor Gunderson (Doug McCall), who is well-meaning but clueless; he’s less attuned to the direction the parish and parishioners are taking than the women are. His gift of vegetarian lasagna for a church supper provokes more angst than Signe’s possible attachment to a Catholic boy.
Except for a sustained fascination with the inedible Scandinavian specialty lutefisk (dried cod), director Laird has downplayed the Norwegian-English dialect. She also lays off the heavy Fargo-esque accent, except for pronouncing the affirmative “Yeaaah” in four sustained beats. The intervals of dance steps, choreographed by Hannah Botsford, take good advantage of the small space at St. Luke’s, and show lithe Ms. Beebe at her best.
A generation after Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd investigated the musical possibilities of cannibalism, there are still shows that feature lime Jell-O mold salads and marshmallows. This is Minnesota nice, finding a home in Camillus.
This production runs through May 26. See Times Table for information.