Arts & Culture

‘Church Basement Ladies’ are musicals ‘anyone can like’

Timmy Hays is a native Minnesotan who has grown up with the eccentric, lovable and wildly popular “Church Basement Ladies” since her mother was choreographer of the original 2005 show that became a lucrative franchise for the Minnesota-based Plymouth Theatre.

“I’ve been there from the very beginning. What I love most is that anyone can like this show, regardless of religious affiliation,” says Hays, who will be directing the Wichita premiere for Crown Uptown Theatre of this fourth installment of the musical comedies about Lutheran ladies coping with the fast-changing world from their church basement kitchen.

Called “The Church Basement Ladies in ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our Basement,’ ” the show opens Friday. Both the original “Church Basement Ladies” and “Church Basement Ladies 2: A Second Helping” set attendance records at the Crown in recent years. The third installment, a Christmas edition called “Away in the Basement,” hasn’t been here yet.

“Technically, this is a prequel rather than a sequel,” says director Hays, noting that the show’s setting is 1960, five years ahead of the original show. “The first show involved one woman’s daughter getting married, the second was about the daughter having a baby. This one goes back to when the daughter was a teenager who was getting ready for her first high heels and her confirmation. It’s about growing up and letting go.”

All the familiar and beloved ladies are present, from traditionalist matriarch and kitchen boss Vivian (Widow Snustad) to hard-working, plain-spoken, laugh-a-minute farm wife Mavis (Mrs. Gilmerson). The organized and efficient Karin (Mrs. Engleson), who actually runs the kitchen, is trying hard to be a modern mom to energetic 15-year-old Beverly, who can’t wait another minute to be an adult.

Trying to keep peace, order and sanity among them all is patient, good-natured but seriously outnumbered Pastor E.L. Gunderson, who was widowed three years before and is looking for love in all the right places.

“Vivian can be a real pain in the behind because she is such a traditionalist. She is the oldest and she’s not at all happy that the teenager wants to wear high heels and that the pastor wants to get remarried after only three years of grieving,” says Janet Bruckner, a Dayton, Ohio, actress who played the role in the national tour of the original and has been in all four shows.

“But what I like about her is that she is willing to change, willing to grow when circumstances warrant,” says Bruckner, who uses her traditionalist grandmother as inspiration for the role. “Change is possible because she does truly love all the other characters.”

Illustrating change is the poignant ballad between mother Karin and daughter Beverly called “Growing Up, Letting Go.” It’s one of 11 new songs composed by Drew Jansen with book by Greta Grosch. On the other end of the emotional scale is a country-flavored romp about Karin taking driving lessons to become more independent.

Wichita actress and music teacher Patti Cooper plays Karin – using the Scandinavian pronunciation of “CAR-in” rather than “CARE-in” – and feels right at home in the role.

“I can really relate to her as a mother who has sent four kids off to college,” Cooper says with a laugh. “My mother was also a Danish Lutheran who settled near Detroit, so I definitely feel I have a connection with Karin, who is the quintessential church worker. Her family is her first priority, but the church is right next to it. My mother is my inspiration. I think about her a lot while I’m going through the show.”

Karin is an organizer who isn’t shy about her opinions. She has a good relationship with her teen daughter, but she dreads that her little girl grows up a little more each day, needing her less and less.

“I can relate to Karin on so many levels,” says Cooper, who has performed with Music Theatre and co-founded Music Theatre for Young People. “Karin has a meltdown about her daughter growing up. Having already been there, I can play that and just enjoy it.”

Playing 15-year-old Beverly is Natalie Swanner, a Friends University grad from Texas who has been in such shows as “White Christmas,” “Sweeney Todd” and “A Chorus Line” at the Crown.

“Playing her is such fun because it’s like a second chance to be a teenager. It’s a little harder than I expected because I wasn’t the girly-girl at that age that Beverly is,” Swanner says. “Her outlook on life is so pure. She pretty much considers herself already an adult, although she doesn’t realize how much she still has to learn.”

Rounding out the ladies as Mavis, the worker bee of the group, is Stephanie Dennis, a veteran of Crown Uptown and Kechi Playhouse and singer with her own band, Kickstart.

“Mavis is the farm girl who is very laid-back and plainspoken. She isn’t the most creative but she is a hard worker. She is also very much the comic relief in the show,” Dennis says.

“She breaks the tension with a joke. She can’t be embarrassed. She isn’t afraid to open a furnace door using her rear when nothing else works. She does a lot of physical things,” Dennis says. “I revel in that.”

Luke Johnson as Pastor Gunderson is the lone male in this female basement domain. While he is outnumbered, he insists he doesn’t feel overwhelmed.

“The Pastor is very passionate about his service to the church. He’s very grounded in his beliefs. He stays on an even keel to keep everyone happy,” says Johnson, a native of Chanute who holds theater degrees from Friends University and Kansas State University. This is his sixth show for Crown Uptown.

“He has a lot of nervous energy, which can make him a little goofy. But he keeps his leadership role without being overwhelmed,” Johnson says. “I’m a character actor at heart who likes a lot of physical comedy. My inspiration for him is Donald O’Connor in the ‘Make ’em Laugh’ number.”

Music director is Jesse Warkentin and choreographer is Gigi Gans. Set is by Robert Morris, lights by Dan Harmon, sound by Josh Gordon and costumes by Joni Simmonson.