The fifth time is apparently the charm for writer Greta Grosch and composer/lyricist Drew Jansen, as the final installment in the Church Basement Ladies series is, for me, the most cohesive and amusing from beginning to end. Primarily, this is because there's a clear plot that ties together the story as, through flashbacks, we learn about the founding of the show's rural-Minnesota church, the initial introduction of the titular ladies to their basement kitchen, and the eventual disbanding of the congregation. This musical is the history of the ladies' Lutheran church in its entirety, a thread that pulls together the proceedings in a beautiful way.
In truth, I think I laughed louder and longer during the first few minutes of Friday's The Church Basement Ladies in: The Last (Potluck) Supper than I did during any of the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's productions of three (of the four) previous installments. These opening moments involve Rachelle Walljasper's handy farm gal Mavis and Kay Francis' curmudgeonly Vivian climbing over each other, atop the kitchen sink, to talk with Tom Walljasper's Pastor Gunderson through the basement window, as the two play up the ridiculousness of the situation without taking it over-the-top. We only see their legs and hear their grunts and groans, but they make comedy gold of it as they essentially wrestle atop a sink counter that barely has room for just one of them. While the set is mostly the same one used for the other Church Basement Ladies musicals at Circa '21, this bit involving the women's flailing legs and rolling bodies, which is already hilarious, also shows off a clever piece in scenic designer Scott Herbst's set that allows a view of what's happening on both sides of the window at the same time.
While this sink-climbing scene is, for me, the show's funniest moment, there are so many more laughs throughout director Curt Wollan's piece, particularly when the actors portray other characters. One involves the women, dressed in hats and ties, imagining their husbands at a cemetery board meeting voicelessly deciding, as board members, mundane things about the handling of the grounds. There are also short bits involving the Scandinavian founders of the church, and even the never-before-seen (but mentioned in every previous installment) woman who brings the same hot dish to pass for every church function, whom the ladies refuse to serve because of their distaste for it, and for her. We're also privy to seeing just how much Kaitlyn Casanova's beleaguered mother-of-two Beverly is like her mother (Deborah Kennedy's even-handed Karin), as some of the flashbacks include similar lessons they're taught by the other ladies - such as how to make egg coffee and handle a rude teenager - and expressions of impatience from each, proving the adage "Like mother, like daughter" to be true.
While Jansen's songs feature mostly unmemorable melodies and wordy lyrics, there are a few moments of brilliance within them, particularly in the clever rhyming of such lines as "Let me croon a verse about how God created the universe" in the musical's opening number "On the Eighth Day." There are also several big numbers that elicit toe-tapping and allow choreographer Andrea Moore to inject some physical fun into them, such as "You Can Learn a Lot about a Lady," the Latin themed "Mom-bo," and the disco number that samples several familiar hits including "I Will Survive" and "This Gal."
Grosch's book, meanwhile, maintains a perfect balance in including familiar bits from previous Church Basement Ladies stories - such as Mavis' "One, two, three, uff-da!" as she opens the furnace room door with her rear end - and new humor, as when a flashback introduction from one of the ladies includes the line, "I think I was wearing this same dress." This fifth and final piece in the story feels fresh, even though we're revisiting women so many Circa '21 patrons have come to love throughout this series. Personally speaking, I wish this were the series' first musical because it sets things up so well, offering a better perspective on the lives of these women, and particularly their emotional investments in their church.
I haven't written very positively about the Church Basement Ladies franchise for past Circa '21 productions, and I stand behind those reviews. The Church Basement Ladies in: The Last (Potluck) Supper, however, struck all the right cords for me, thanks to a featured plotline that, unlike in previous pieces, ties up all loose ends. In this case, the last is certainly not the least.
The Church Basement Ladies in: The Last (Potluck) Supper runs at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island) through May 16, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visiting Circa21.com.