Upon entering the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse for Friday's evening presentation of Church Basement Ladies, I handed my ticket to longtime lobby host Ed Jones, who greeted me with a knock-knock joke (one of his better ones, I must say) and some happy news: The audience for that day's matinée performance included seven busloads of guests making their first-ever treks to the Rock Island venue, with one tour group traveling all the way from Champaign, Illinois, to see the show.
As someone who will forever be a completely biased fan of Circa '21, I'm delighted that the theatre is luring new crowds with - and scheduling additional performances for - Church Basement Ladies. (And in the midst of a recession, no less.) I can only hope that the newbies' experiences are such positive ones that they'll be moved to visit Circa '21 again in the future, when they can see a production that's ... well ... a lot more fun than this one.
My guess, though, is that the majority of attendees are having a swell time regardless; Friday night's house, at least, was frequently filled with laughs that were more like sustained shrieks of pleasure, and you occasionally heard noises that the theatre's musical comedies only rarely elicit - those of cackling patrons, overcome with glee, slapping their palms and fists against the tabletops. I was cheered by the sounds, but in truth, they also depressed the hell out of me, because what the crowd was roaring at felt so grossly ill-conceived, with such little regard for character and basic common sense, that I was a little dumbfounded. Given the same director (Curt Wollan) and two of the same stars, I presumed this would be much the same Church Basement Ladies that I saw when Circa '21 first staged the show two years ago. It turns out to be a far, far lesser one, and I wasn't all that nuts about it the first time around.
Having also attended the Timber Lake Playhouse's production of this material last August, I'll be the first to admit that my annoyance stems partly from repetition. Opening in the winter of 1964 and closing, three extended vignettes later, in the summer of 1968, the show is designed to celebrate the gumption and good humor of those hard-working women in Lutheran kitchens everywhere, as a quartet of Minnesota cooks (played here by Emily Bodkin, Molly Laurel, Nicole Savitt, and Regina Webster) and their pastor (Tom Walljasper) joke, bicker, and discuss matters of faith, intermittently interrupting their banter for tongue-in-cheek song-and-dance routines. Written by Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke, with music and lyrics by Drew Jansen, the show isn't much more than a Lutheran Nunsense minus the audience interaction, yet its lyrics are clever and its observations oftentimes astute, and there's an air of ingratiating geniality almost throughout; Church Basement Ladies may be a Nunsense doppelgänger, but at least it's a sincere one.
This particular Church Basement Ladies, though, is anything but sincere - it practically reeks of cynicism - and you can tell because it displays almost no interest in people; in this latest take on the show, humanity takes a backseat to one-dimensional stereotyping. It's unfortunate enough that the ladies are (again) hidden beneath the sorts of depressingly phony-looking wigs that tend to quash personality. (Watching Bodkin's and Laurel's mother-daughter duo, with their matching platinum-blond 'dos, is like watching the '70s-era Carol Channing act in front of a mirror.) But beginning with its opening tableau, in which we're invited to chortle at Savitt bent over with her rear end facing us, it's clear that this production doesn't care about its characters as individuals, and will indulge in any obvious, pandering means to secure a reaction, any reaction, even if those means humiliate the leads, or are detrimental to the storyline.
Savitt's Mavis, saddled with intensely tiresome and unappealing visual gags about her weight and frequent hot flashes, is treated the worst, and the performer doesn't do herself any favors with her overly practiced comic shtick. (The actress was the best thing about Circa '21's 2007 production, but her previous spontaneity and freshness in the role are missing here.) Yet none of the ladies comes off especially well. From scene to scene, Laurel's Signe is either a blandly level-headed type or a bubble-brained ditz - the character is visiting from college, and you want to ask, "From clown college?" - and her mother, Bodkin's Karin, is so colorless during the show's first three quarters that her eventual transformation into a raving, Lucy Ricardo-esque hysteric is completely senseless. (Church Basement Ladies seems to reach its logical conclusion after its third vignette, yet continues for another half hour anyway, perhaps because Karin hasn't been made to look embarrassing yet.)
Though obviously not the elderly woman her physicality suggests, Webster at least stays in slow-moving character as the deadpan grump Vivian ... until she's forced into breaking character when a stuck door magically opens after being bumped by her posterior - this show seems obsessed with scoring laughs through women's asses - and when she indulges in a series of comedically arthritic dance moves. (It's hard to tell if irony is intended when Vivian rails against the evils of dancing throughout the production, and then never seems to stop dancing.) Walljasper, also recruited from 2007's presentation, provides some solid, professional diversion, and you can hardly fault any of the cast members' vocals, but one moment after another here feels achingly fraudulent: the mock crying jags; the song intros spoken in unison; the exaggerated sighs of contentment following group laughter. Even the temperatures feel off; at one point, characters barely shiver even though the furnace is busted and it's 20-below outside, and at another, Vivian uses oven mitts to hold a hot casserole dish that Mavis mitt-lessly hands her.
I didn't find Friday's performance wholly devoid of entertainment perks. The opener features a terrific musical bit in which an instrumental break is performed through routine kitchen activities, and there was a perfectly timed visual/aural joke involving an über-heavy cake rolling on a tabletop; that one made me laugh out loud. And the cast is clearly gifted, even if, here, they seem to be working the low end of their gifts.
Yet the whole point of Church Basement Ladies - and the reason this already-sequel-laden franchise is such a monster success - would seem to lie in the delight audiences take in watching recognizable characters talk and behave just like the church-basement types they themselves know (or are), and there's nothing recognizable amidst the overscaled cartoons in Circa '21's latest. It's telling that the show's most humane and unfairly maligned character - the one who tries the hardest to do the right thing and is shamed for her efforts - is actually the pastor's wife, who is frequently referenced but only exists off-stage. I think I would've had a better time hanging out with her.
For tickets and information, call (309)786-7733, extension 2, or visit Circa21.com.