Theater producer Curt Wollan has stopped trying to analyze why his quirky, homespun "Church Basement Ladies" has set attendance records everywhere it played since it premiered in 2005 — including becoming the most successful show in the 30-year history of Wichita's Crown Uptown Theatre.
It isn't name stars in the cast, Wollan says of the musical, which tells of a group of Minnesota Lutheran ladies of Scandinavian descent who provide mountains of food from the church basement kitchen for every occasion, whether celebration or crisis, during one year in the 1960s.
"I call it 'Seinfeld' for older people," Wollan says. "Everyone falls in love with the characters, but not a huge lot happens, except life. It just goes on. It's funny and comfortable. These women are our moms, our aunts, our sisters, and people respond very well to them."
Now Wollan, who guest-directed the original show at the Crown two years ago, is back to guest-direct the sequel, "Church Basement Ladies 2: A Second Helping." It opened Thursday and runs through June 13.
Like the original, the show was inspired by the best-selling "Growing Up Lutheran" and other humorous and nostalgic books by Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson, adapted for the stage by Greta Grosch. Music is by Drew Jansen and Dennis Curley.
"It's more of the same with the same characters, only instead of a wedding, there's a pregnancy this time. It's six months later and the girl who got married at the end of the first one comes home to have her baby," Wollan says of this new musical launched in 2008 by Plymouth Playhouse in Minneapolis, where he is based.
Tara Tucker, recently seen as Velma in Crown's "Chicago," is the new kitchen leader, Karin, whose daughter's sometimes rocky courtship and eventual marriage provided a key element of the first show. Meg Osborne-Parsley, a Wichita State theater grad with New York experience who played the daughter the first time around, returns as the now-married-mom-to-be, Beverly.
Nancy Evans, a veteran Broadway and international opera performer, is the proper and sometimes snooty Vivian (Mrs. Lars Snustad). Diana Wilde, another New York veteran now based in Minneapolis, is the bustling Mavis (Mrs. Gilmer Gilmerson), a good-hearted, plain-talking farm wife.
Also returning from the previous Crown production is Rob Summers as Pastor E.L. Gunderson, the righteous but sometimes flustered spiritual head of East Cornucopia Lutheran Church. Music director is Kimberly Dugger and choreographer is Barb Schoenhofer.
For audiences who can't get enough of the Ladies, Wollan says there is a third installment, a holiday show called "CBL: Away in the Basement" that premiered this year in Minneapolis. Part 4, a prequel set 10 years earlier in 1960 and tentatively called "CBL: A Mighty Fortress Is Our Basement," is planned for 2011. And the fifth, and likely final, chapter is set for 2012, Wollan says.
"It's based on a true story as seen in an Emmy-winning documentary about the moving of a historic old church to a new site to become a museum," he says. "It takes place during a final pot-luck supper for members and friends to say goodbye. It seems like the perfect conclusion to our story."