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Loot-efisk: "Church Basement Ladies," at the Timber Lake Playhouse through August 24 PDF Print E-mail
Theatre - Reviews
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 20 August 2008 02:17

the Church Basement Ladies ensembleChurch Basement Ladies is a show I'd love to be hateful towards, because it sort of compresses everything I don't traditionally enjoy in musical theatre into one convenient package, and because its four-nonsecular-girls-and-a-guy conceit is such a blatant ripoff of those pitiful sequels to Nunsense, in which creator Danny Goggin decided to spice things up by adding a man to the mix. (I'd call Church Basement Ladies an unapologetic ripoff, except we Lutherans are apologetic about damn near everything.)

Yet since the theatre's ensemble is playing their material about as well as it can be played, I can't hate the Timber Lake Playhouse's current presentation of Church Basement Ladies. And, truth be told, I can't quite hate the show itself. I'm forced to acknowledge that many of its comic observations are pretty funny, many of its lyrics are witty, and while the work appears rather obviously designed as a Nunsense-"inspired" cash cow, at least it isn't cynical. Cynical-in-training, maybe, but not cynical.

I swallow no small measure of dignity saying this, because there are times during the show when I feel compelled to compose 95 complaints against Church Basement Ladies and nail them to the doors of its authors' homes. In theory, it's all perfectly harmless: a quartet of vignettes, each one taking place in a Minnesota church-basement kitchen in the mid-1960s, in which four hard-working women (played here by Samantha Dubina, Jenny Guse, Kitty Karn, and Sarah A. Ruden) and their pastor (Jeremy Day) discuss events of the day, food, and their own Lutheranism, and frequently do so in song and (some) dance. The show is genial, pleasant, and determinedly crowd-pleasing.

It's also, much like the meals whipped up by its heroines, almost criminally bland. (One of the show's numbers is "The Pale Food Polka," which would be an acceptable alternate title for the show itself.) There are no real characters, only mouthpieces - four of whom spend two-plus hours recounting what it means to be Lutheran, while the fifth is used to lightly challenge their deeply held beliefs. There are no real insights, just the standard clichés about Lutheran tirelessness and stubbornness and martyrdom - presented lovingly, of course. (The show flatters its audience by telling them that everything they already believe about Lutherans is correct; Church Basement Ladies' touchstone finds the women routinely chirping, in unison, "This is most certainly true!") There are no real crises - or rather, no crises that can't be overcome through solid Midwestern gumption and about five minutes of stage time.

Beyond its vanilla-pudding consistency, though, the show is presentationally confused. Unlike in the Nunsense plays, the Church Basement Ladies audience isn't directly addressed during the book scenes, which scrapes much of the "Look at us!" cutesiness off the material. (Thank heaven for small favors.) But that doesn't stop the cast from occasionally reacting to punchlines with pandering takes to the crowd, or director James Beaudry from breaking the fourth wall with characters sitting on the stage steps or walking through Timber Lake's auditorium. And the song-and-dance numbers themselves are pitched directly at us, dropping whatever pretense of realism the show can lay claim to; twice in Act II, we're goaded into clapping along to the music. So can these people see us or can't they?

None of this, though, seemed to bother the majority of Friday night's attendees, who roared and applauded vigorously throughout. And it's not hard to understand what's appealing about the show. Even those of us who find the sentiment forced and the presentation lazy have to concede that there are plenty of amusing bits here - Ruden's pinched-faced elder bemoans the day their black hymnals were switched, for no good reason, to red - and while the music isn't very distinctive, at least the lyrics are smart and snappy; the songs may do nothing to further the plot or reveal character, but they're certainly not insulting. Besides, outside of Garrison Keillor, where else can audiences find Lutherans getting this sort of entertainment face-time?

Thankfully, too, Timber Lake's performers work like mad to sell the production, even though, with the exception of Ruden (who creates a hysterical and surprisingly heartfelt figure), they aren't allowed to be as interesting or entertaining as they've been in other Timber Lake roles this summer. It's difficult to make a full meal out of nothing but corn, and you end up witnessing their natural comic invention only intermittently, as when Dubina does a Snoopy-esque happy dance after correctly answering a Lutheran Q&A query, and when Karn reacts to a hot flash by shoving a Popsicle in her bra.

But at least they're sincere, and so is Church Basement Ladies. I will suggest, however, that the show is currently enjoying its grace period, before it gets sequel-ized to death à la the Nunsense series, and its original charm is nullified by uninspired, repetitive, take-the-money-and-run follow-ups. So if you're going to see it, see it soon. Church Basement Ladies 2: A Second Helping opened in Minneapolis this past March. God help us.

 

For tickets, call (815) 244-2035.

 

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written by Darrell Jankowiak, August 20, 2008
Wow...somebody took an extra crabby pill today. Yet another "I can't understand why everyone around me was having such a great time! They must be morons" review. Yawn...

Let me guess, Mike...you tried to write plays once, and nobody came to see them.

Sour grapes eventually turn into wrinkled, old, insignificant things.
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written by C. Wollan, August 21, 2008
I also saw that show the night before you did, and Mike, you mentioned that one of the show's numbers was "Pale Food Polka". I'm sorry to tell you that they cut out "Pale Food Polka"from their version. Did you really see it at Timber Lake or are you using a previous review?
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written by Darrell Jankowiak, August 21, 2008
Busted! :D :D :D
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written by Janice Freiburg, August 21, 2008
I do not understand why Mr. Schulz is so negative with his reviews. He must think he is better than the readers and audience members in his area. it proves from the comments here that he did not see this production or did not pay attention since he comments on a song that was not even in this production. Perhaps the management staff at the reader should look into getting a reviewer that can pay attention during productions that they are to review. A simple this is not my cup of tea would be enough and then write on the production itself not just a bunch of hot air being blown around. Does this man think he is writing for the New York Times? Please realize where you are and who the audience of your paper is do not criticize us for what we may find entertaining. If this were a paper I subscribed to I would be canceling my subscription. Get over yourself Mr. Schulz. I must agree with Mr. Jankowiak did you try once to write a play and can't get over the fact that it was a flop???
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written by Donny Elmstad, August 21, 2008
Some cheese with that whine, Mike?
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written by Lou Hare, August 21, 2008
Are you people serious? Have you actually read any other of Mike's reviews? Actually, don't answer that because I have a hard time believing that you even read this one. The truth is that Mike's reviews are more often than not positive ones. If you were a regular reader, you would see that. In fact as a regular reader, I would say he can sometimes be too positive not overly negative. He has every right to think a script is crap, even if the production is good, which seems to be the case here. Before you criticize him, maybe you should go back and actually read some of his reviews and if that's still not good enough, start your own review page.
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written by Andy K, August 22, 2008
Okay, I don't get it. Are people actually, mad at a reviewer for having an opinion. Isn't that the whole point. Mike's opinions were well explained. If you don't like them why not counter his arguments as opposed to speculating on his character or mood. After all Mike doesn't say, "That actor was unconvincing, maybe he hates audiences and wants them to suffer." You could also try refuting him by explaining why exactly you liked the performance.
Also, the mistake about the song doesn't suggest he wasn't there, his review is way too specific to be faked.
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written by Jeff Ignatius, August 22, 2008
Mike Schulz has confirmed with Timber Lake General Manager Richard Hall that "Pale Food Polka" was omitted on opening night but not subsequent shows.
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written by Timber fan, August 22, 2008
I saw the show the same eve as Mike and am familiar with the show. I also saw it opening night. Truth be told some folks went up on lines accidently and subsequently the song was skipped during that performance. I heard it opening night but NOT night 2. No biggie though. Enjoy the show.
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written by Tom C., August 25, 2008
He probably would love it if it were performed by his beloved Prenzies.
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written by schqc, August 25, 2008
A thoughtful negative review is infinitely more useful to me than a mindless positive drone.

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