Church 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.