by Terrance Mc Arthur
Every church has them—the ladies you never see at the church activities, even though they have been there for hours, preparing food for the holiday/funeral/fundraiser/ wedding, usually in the church basement, the unsung heroines of the church. This time, they get to sing…and dance (…a little; these are Lutherans, you know).
Church Basement Ladies is a musical about a stalwart group of CBLs in Minnesota. It might seem like Nunsense as written by Garrison Keillor or a Lutheran version of Steel Magnolias (with an aroma of lutefisk—cod cured in lye—instead of that beauty parlor smell). The Historic Fallon House Theatre in the Columbia State Historical Park, nestled in California’s Gold Country, is an apt venue for this Sierra Repertory Theatre production of the Jim Stowell/Jessica Zuehlke-written play with songs by Drew Jansen, inspired by the books of Janet Letnes Martin and Suzanne Nelson (Growing Up Lutheran).
Pastor Gunderson (Christopher Vettel) presides over a quartet of underground foodmakers. Mrs. Snustad (Caitlin Randall) has run the kitchen for years, and she doesn’t like change; the switch from black hymnals to red ones has never set well with her. Mavis Gilmerson (Becky Saunders), wife of the unseen Gilmer (none of the living or dead husbands make appearances in the kitchen) knows the history, lineage, and secrets of everyone in town. Mrs. Engelson (Nancy O’Bryan) is the heir apparent of the CBL leadership, and her daughter Signe (Halley Electra Mayo) is a college student with a taste for the modern, who manages to find time in her school schedule to help her mother and the ladies of the basement on special occasions.
Mayo is giggly and effervescent, keeping a youthful current running through her interactions with the elder stateswomen of the church.
Randall has played the Mother Superior in Sound of Music and took over the role during rehearsals. Her air of superiority and her frustration with the cultural shifts of the 1960s is adorable.
O’Bryan leavens the pep of Signe with responsibility and concern for the feelings of others. She has performed as Aldonza in Man of La Mancha and the title role in Always…Patsy Cline.
Vettel has toured as Bert in Annie, and he resembles the young, thin Edward Herrmann of The North Avenue Irregulars. He manages to stay calm through record-breaking crowds at a Christmas dinner, a missing bride, and costumes that a minister would not be trained to wear in divinity school.
Saunders is like Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, bundled together and died blonde. She warbles of the joys of menopause and hot flashes, performs a near-striptease while battling a furnace, and walks off with the love of the audience, because we’re all sure we’ve known a person like that. She will soon be seen in East Sonora in the Sierra Rep production of Six Dances in Six Weeks.
There is no real life-and-death conflict in the plot; the possibility that Signe might be dating a Catholic boy is the highest-tension development of the plot. Songs cover: a fondness for bland food, the differences between Lutherans and Catholics, being the mother of the bride, and funeral cuisine. The set was designed by Jay Heiserman, who is art director for the Ellen DeGeneres talk show, and is a sturdy replica of a kitchen of mid-century vintage.
Music Director Dennis Brown works behind the scenes, gleefully tickling the ivories to provide live music for the show; he deserves his bow with the cast. My wife enjoyed the preshow medley of hymns, including “A Mighty Fortress” done at a proper, brisk pace. The wigs are worth their own curtain call, and the sound system was terrific; the only problems were caused by people who couldn’t stop laughing.
Church Basement Ladies plays through Sunday, May 19 at the Fallon House Theatre. Most Thursday and Friday performances begin at 7 p.m., Saturday evening shows begin at 8 p.m., and Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday matinees begin at 2 p.m. There is a Thursday 2 p.m. matinee on May 16, and a special “talk back” with performers following the evening performance on Thursday, May 2. General admission ranges from $26-$32 depending on the day of the performance, with senior, student and child rates available. The show is rated PG, (suitable for ages 12 and up).
For more information or reservations, call Sierra Rep’s box office at (209) 532-3120 or visit Sierra Rep online at www.sierrarep.org.
Check out other theatre reviews up tonight in KRL and come back for more every Wednesday!