Being raised Lutheran, I easily recognized the Lutheranisms on display in director Curt Wollan's Church Basement Ladies, currently playing at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse. (Growing Up Lutheran, in fact, is the title of the Janet Letnes Martin & Suzann Johnson Nelson book the show is based on.) And as written by Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke, with music and lyrics by Drew Jansen, this comedy smartly dissects the customs of its Minnesotan characters, is filled with gently sly references, and is spot-on in revealing our sect's unique brand of hostility, in which insults are casually tossed off as conversation. (Handing the phone to her pastor, one of the title characters gets in a veiled, pointed jab with "It's your new wife.")
Yet it's the most loving kind of satire you could imagine, and based on the production's overwhelming advance sales (the highest in Circa '21's history) and the frequently raucous laughter of Friday's crowd, the show appears to be exactly what many audiences - particularly Those of a Certain Age - are looking for.
I didn't laugh nearly as hard as others did. And while I'll concede that this might just be a generational thing, I think the show's failings lie with the production proving to be, oddly enough, too good at its job; with all that this implies, Church Basement Ladies is perhaps the most Lutheran show you will ever see, and - as far as this stage piece is concerned - I'm not sure that's necessarily a good thing.
Set in the mid-1960s in, appropriately enough, a church basement - the sickly, puke-green walls on Scott Herbst's set are just right - the show concerns Pastor Gunderson (Tom Walljasper) and the four women who prepare meals for their parish: Vivian (Jean Liuzzi), the stoic one; Mavis (Nicole Savitt), the feisty one; Signe (Megan Lavner), the young one; and Karin (Margaret Curry) ... uh, the other one. (Karin is actually Signe's mother, but her character doesn't develop much deeper than that.) Through a quartet of vignettes, they cook and joke and talk about what it means to be Lutheran, and occasionally do so through song and dance. And this is where things get sticky.
It's no secret that I was somewhat dreading this show, because in form and concept, it sounded just like a Lutheran spin on Nunsense, the sequels for which have composed the most soulless, desperately unamusing theatrical series on the planet. The joy and surprise of Church Basement Ladies, though, is that its behavioral humor is 180 degrees different from the forced wackiness of the Nunsense offerings; there's a gentle sincerity here that's enormously appealing. (Ironically, the biggest laughs come when there's no dialogue whatsoever, as when the pastor and Vivian engage in a comically uncomfortable stare-down.)
Unfortunately - and I can't believe I'm writing this - the show could've used a little more Nunsense.
In theory, the decision to have the ladies and their pastor break out in song is a terrific one, as the music allows the characters to release their thoughts and emotions in ways in which a "good Lutheran" normally wouldn't allow; there's a great satiric idea there, in Lutheran repression giving way to song-and-dance razzmatazz.
But the idea remains an abstraction, because the musical numbers here are performed in the same low-key demeanor as the book scenes. The music isn't very original or memorable, yet we may not have noticed that if the actors had momentarily ditched their characters' self-effacing niceness and shook the show out of its gentility; as it is, the musical numbers wind up feeling uncommitted. The performers' harmonies are always superb, but the numbers themselves rarely rise above "pleasant," and it's supremely difficult for performers to sell "pleasant."
And the cast is often hindered by more than the characters' manners, as Church Basement Ladies is too reliant on tiresome shtick - Mavis' carelessness with a knife, while entertaining at first, becomes too much of a good thing - and a few too many groan-inducing genre clichés. (Our lead-in to the song "This Is Most Certainly True"? The actresses, in unison, declaring, "This is most certainly true!") Plus, the wigs that the female cast members are forced into are really bad; they come dangerously close to quashing the performers' personalities.
Thankfully, Savitt exudes a personality that can't be quashed. Seen in constant, bustling motion, and sporting a beaming smile that complements her good-naturedly dopey jokes - she holds these grins a few beats longer than she should, doubling their comic effect - Savitt is an absolute delight. I would've been happier if she weren't stuck with so many routines that poke fun at her girth, but damned if the tireless, endearing Savitt doesn't make these bits work, too. (Wollan is an ace at slapstick, but after this show and last autumn's The Lovely Liebowitz Sisters, I'd love to see Circa '21 hire him for something that doesn't get such mileage out of laugh-at-the-heavy-girl gags.)
With Walljasper providing elegant, understated readings, Curry delivering a lovely, funny mini-breakdown while filling cups with peanuts, Lavner sweetly suggesting utter guilelessness, and Liuzzi holding court as a Lutheran Don Corleone - her comic imperiousness drew gasps from the audience - all of the performers have random moments both charming and hilarious. But on Friday night, the best examples of each were nowhere to be found in the script itself.
Entering in a wedding gown, Lavner briefly got her dress caught in the door, and uttered a winningly dejected "Oh, dear," before rectifying the situation - that delightful ad lib was touching (and funny) for being so wonderfully true. And when Walljasper's eyeglasses flew off his face and behind the freezer, the actor's "Are you kidding?" deadpan made the audience howl; when he leapt onto the freezer and yanked them out, the crowd went crazy. Both accidental moments had the freshness and spontaneity that too much of Church Basement Ladies was lacking, and in the end, that's my chief disappointment with this incredibly well-meaning, only sporadically enjoyable production: I believed that the characters were Lutheran, but I rarely believed they were people.
For tickets, call (309)786-7733 extension 2.