Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Review: "Church Basement Ladies" Serves Up Laughs

One of my favorite things about Midwesterners is our ability to poke fun at ourselves, to examine our quirks, habits and ways of living and not take it all too seriously.

If you also appreciate a healthy helping of good-natured, self-deprecating ribbing, I’d recommend checking out Church Basement Ladies, a lighthearted musical running at Overture Center through Sunday.

The show follows the four women who run the basement kitchen of a small-town Minnesota Lutheran church in the 1960s. Four scenes see the ladies through preparations for a lefse and lutefisk supper, a friend’s funeral, Easter morning and a wedding.

All the action takes place in the kitchen, which looks exactly like most church kitchens I’ve seen, from the mint-green walls to the accordion screen that can close the room off from the rest of the church.

The characters resonate, too, particularly Mrs. Snustad, the matriarch who ensures everything in her kitchen is just so. And Pastor Gunderson, played by William Christopher from M*A*S*H, is technically in charge but knows the kitchen is not his domain.

It’s these sorts of cultural accuracies that make Church Basement Ladies funny. And the songs follow in that vein. Early on, the women sing “The Pale Food Polka” and celebrate the Bible of their kitchen, “The Joy of Butter” cookbook. Later, they explain the differences between Lutherans and Catholics and grill the youngest of the group about the rules of church cooking—namely that lasagna is never served at funerals and casseroles only answer to the name “hotdish.”

But the musical isn’t all pokes at small-town life and the Midwestern dialect. There are a few poignant moments, such as when the pastor struggles to write a eulogy for his friend and when Mrs. Snustad reveals why she’s so resistant to change.

That said, audiences come to this play to laugh and they probably don’t leave disappointed. At last night’s show, the crowd absolutely howled anytime quirky Mavis dealt with hot flashes or other symptoms of menopause. In fact, how strongly the audience—most of whom probably experienced a church basement meal or two in the 1960s—connected to the play was a highlight of the evening.

The musical was such a hit last summer that Overture decided to bring it back for a limited run. Should this second helping prove popular? Oh, you betcha.

Church Basement Ladies runs through August 23 at Overture Center. Performances are Wednesday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18–$35. For tickets or more information, call 258.4141 or visit

Photos courtesy of Overture Center.

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