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‘Church Basement Ladies’ is sweet, delightfully silly

  • Eagle correspondent
  • Published Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, at 12:24 a.m.

If you go

“Church Basement Ladies in ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our Basement’ ”

What: Fourth installment of the popular musicals about Minnesota Lutheran ladies

Where: Crown Uptown Theatre, 3297 E. Douglas

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays (doors open at 5 p.m., dinner 5 to 7:15 p.m.) and 2 p.m. Sundays (doors open at 12:30 p.m., appetizers and desserts available) with select Thursday matinees at 12:30 p.m. (doors open at 10:30 a.m., lunch 10:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.) through March 9.

Tickets: $55; call 316-612-7696.

The fourth installment of the “Church Basement Ladies” musical saga, which actually is a prequel to everything that came before, seems a bit more tuneful than its predecessors with about 10 full songs/production numbers by Drew Jansen.

But the show, which does for Minnesota Lutherans what “Nunsense” and its sequels have done for Catholics, is no less delightfully silly, sweet and heartfelt in this production at Crown Uptown Theatre.

Called “The Church Basement Ladies in ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our Basement’ ” and directed by Minnesota native Timmy Hays (whose mother choreographed the Minnesota-based original), this show is, well, just plain nice. It’s light and bright. It’s charming and corny. It’s easy to watch and even easier to like. It’s theater as comfort food.

Jansen’s music has a pleasant, almost predictable sameness, although he varies tempo from poignant ballad to rousing revival. Individual tunes work well as you hear them, but they become quickly forgettable.

Inspired by the nostalgic novel “Growing Up Lutheran,” this series of shows deals with the women who observe and comment on the changing world of the 1960s from the perspective — and safety — of their unchanging church basement kitchen, where they prepare food for everything from weddings to funerals.

The first revolved around a young woman falling in love and getting married, the second revolved around her becoming a new mother and embarking on a new life away from home, and the third — which hasn’t yet been performed in Wichita — was a Christmas special.

This fourth one jumps back to 1960 when the girl — daughter of one of the Church Basement Ladies — is 15 and getting ready for her Confirmation and her first pair of high heels. The ladies all act as her de facto mom, giving quirky advice and explaining stoic “Lutheran love.” There is even a bit of comic — and harmless — Lutheran versus Catholic rivalry.

Natalie Swanner, a theater graduate from Friends University, is a perky and whiny delight as Beverly, the eager teen who already considers herself an adult. Her naivete is amusingly obvious in her song about how easy life will be “When I’m Confirmed” while the ladies caution her (through Jansen’s catchy lyrics) that “Things will go awry a lot, you’ll eat humble pie a lot.”

Patti Cooper, a longtime theater teacher, director, choreographer and co-founder of Music Theatre for Young People, plays Beverly’s helicopter mom, Karin. Despite strict upbringing by her Norwegian immigrant parents, Karin has emerged as one of the more progressive thinkers in her church, willing to consider new ways, social changes and women’s liberation for herself and her daughter. Her “Growing Up, Letting Go” about the changing relationship with her daughter is beautiful and poignant.

More traditional — and more comic — are Janet Bruckner as Vivian, the cranky widowed boss of the kitchen, who is skeptical of any change whatsoever, and Stephanie Dennis as Mavis, a good-hearted, hard-working, no-frills farm wife.

Bruckner, an Ohio actress who has played in all four “Church Ladies” shows, including a 2011 national tour, reveals a loving heart beneath her tough exterior, particularly cavorting through a bouncy ditty (and nailing a couple of surprising high notes) about being named “Pickle Queen” at the local fair.

The only misstep for me — mostly fault of playwright Greta Grosch, abetted by director and actress — is the overplayed comic “drunk” scene when Vivian accidentally sips some blackberry brandy in the rival Catholic Church Ladies’ basement. Tipsiness isn’t funny like it was back in the days of Foster Brooks or Dudley Moore’s “Arthur.” Changing attitudes have made such a scene more cringe-worthy than cute.

Dennis (Crown’s “Steel Magnolias,” Kechi Playhouse’s original “Cleaning Up”) is hilarious as the unsophisticated but cleverly practical farm wife, using fearless physical shtick to open stuck doors with her ample rump or revealing her old-lady pantyhose while dancing without a shred of embarrassment. Her earthy anthem to being “Born to Farm” is broadly funny and priceless.

Playing the only male in the cast is lanky Luke Johnson (Crown’s “A Chorus Line,” “Wizard of Oz,” “Sweeney Todd”) as Pastor E.L. Gunderson, whose impending nuptials become a giddy cause celebre for the ladies. In past shows, the pastor has been 50-ish. Here, he’s late 20s, which changes the dynamic, but not in a bad way. He’s more of a challenge for the ladies because of his youth. The more they want to mother him, the more — like teen Beverly — he has to assert his leadership without stepping on toes.

Johnson has a resonant low baritone that makes his mini-sermons captivating and his rousing, revivalist “All Heaven Breaks Loose” a commanding highlight.

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