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‘Church Basement Ladies’ dishes out laughs, fun time

By Staff | Feb 12, 2009

“Church Basement Ladies” is a Minnesota import that is currently tickling the funny bones of audiences attending the Off Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre. The book for this musical, that takes on Lutherans everywhere, was written by Jessica Zurhlke and Jim Stowell, with music and lyrics by Drew Jansen. “Church Basement Ladies” has been playing to sell-out crowds for 29 months in Minneapolis, as well as dishing out laughs all across the country from Kansas to Chicago and all points north and south. It runs through March 29th at the Broadway Palm.

The show was off and running with a rousing and infectious opening “Closer to Heaven (In the Church Basement)” sung by the entire cast of four ladies and the pastor. That little ditty started the ball rolling and the sold-out audience giggling and hooting in recognition. This was followed by “The Pale Food Polka” which sang the praises of the standard Norwegian feast – lefse and lutefisk (some sort of white fish, potatoes, cabbage, flour, Muenster cheese, and cream mixture, smothered in lots of BUTTER) – while the ladies cooked up this luncheon blowout for 187 people.

The delighted audience laughed out loud at such goofy lyrics as “Don’t be brash, don’t be bold, when you’re feeding the fold” in this kitchen chorale. All this folk-tradition is laid-out for our enjoyment as the ladies go about brandishing out coffee and hot dishes, punctuating their sentences with an occasional “ufda!” (a sort of oy vey, Norwegian style) added to local references – a pickup truck is a “Minnesota refrigerator,” and “wonder boots” are actually Wonder Bread plastic bags tied on to cover one’s shoes.

Tradition is what counts to the good people of Cornucopia, Minn. in the year 1967. Stay away from the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah also known as Minneapolis and St. Paul. There are lots of inside jokes like the differences between Lutherans and Catholics; as sung in “This Is Most Certainly True,” another audience favorite for those in the know; as was the reference to “Dead Spread,” a tune about funeral food.

I’m sure that the more you know about church life, the funnier these jokes are, and also the truer to life this show gets. And I’m sure if you were raised Lutheran and of a certain age where the hammed up ode to hot flashes, “My Own Personal Island,” will resonate for you, setting the chuckles churning into helpless guffaws. This certainly proved true for the audience I sat with; they had an absolutely terrific time, according to the laugh-a-minute reading I took.

The cast of this genial, wholesome, gently satirical show was droll and terrific. Mikey Wiseman as Pastor Gunderson did a fine job in his sweet poignant solo “Song for Willie.” The strong singing of Jessica Taige as Signe was grand, as was her acting progression from student to bride, which probably provided the closest thing to a plot line in the raucous giggle-fest. The graceful, multi-talented Keara Trummel as Karin Engleson, Signe’s once nonconformist mother, echoed wisdom and reason convincingly. In direct contrast and just as comically convincing as a conservative force at the center of it all was Kay Francis as Vivian, aka Mrs. Lars Snustad, who performed her tasks with suitably exaggerated protests. Beth Brandel (the sizzle-puss in “wonder boots”) was hilarious with her over-the-top rendition of “My Own Personal Island.”

The direction by Curt Wollan kept the laughs moving along hot and heavy as did the choreography by April Monte. The set by Paul Drechsel and the costumes by Jim Conti were not only on target, they made a great frame for the show and gave the characters real identity – especially the five different hats and scarves that folks need to wear all at one time during those “brrr” Minnesota winters.

This show was certainly an audience favorite the night I caught the show; they certainly had a whale of a good time, according to my laugh meter countdown. As for me, although I’m a big fan of “The Prairie Home Companion” and listen to that radio show pretty faithfully every Saturday, I didn’t resonate that much to “Church Basement Ladies” . Maybe I have to chalk that up to growing up in New York City, where none of my churches had basements, all our events were done on the top floor of an elevated building, and most of the food was catered by a local restaurant or delicatessen.

Nevertheless, for those of you who grew up attending church functions and the dear women that ran them, this will be a real treat and a great trip down memory lane, glorifying growing up in a church-centered lifestyle and congregation. You’d better hurry and get on down to the box office at the Broadway Palm or better yet phone 278-4422 for your reservation to “Church Basement Ladies”, because tickets to this one are selling out fast. Remember to tell ’em Marsha sent you.

And now for a shameless commercial:

Guess who is performing this Sunday, Feb. 15th, at 7 p.m. at the Schoolhouse Theatre?

Yup, yours truly, along with my dear friend, Thomas Bartis, in his acting debut on Sanibel. We’re doing a Valentine’s Day, play-reading tribute of A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters”, the story of Andrew Makepeace Ladd and Melissa Gardner, whose funny friendship & ill-fated romance takes them from second grade through middle age.

For more information, or tickets, call the box office at 472-6862 and, once again, tell ’em Marsha sent you!