Church Basement Ladies - the State Journal

By Veronica Rueckert For the State Journal
 
"They have miracles galore, we have Miracle Whip."

That's the church ladies, on that most primeval of rivalries, Catholics v. Lutherans. And the ladies lay it on as thick as butter on lefse in the musical comedy "Church Basement Ladies" by Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke, which is currently showing at Capitol Theater in Overture Center. The show is billed as "A celebration of the church basement kitchen and the women who work there" and was inspired by the best-selling book, "Growing Up Lutheran."

In these parts, Lutheran lore is obviously fertile territory and has served none other than Garrison Keillor, Lutheranism's chief wag, for decades and is still going strong. The Lutheran jokes come fast and furious in "Church Basement Ladies," and if it doubled as a drinking game, using the words uff da, lefse or lutefisk, the audience would be soused halfway through Act 1. If you're Lutheran, the jokes will ring like a church bell; if you merely hail from the upper Midwest, the osmosis factor will probably get you anyway. Trust me, we all know one of the church basement ladies.

The loosely constructed plot takes place in an avocado green church basement kitchen in the 1960s, and centers around Mavis, the goofy one; Vivian, the holier-than-thou one; Karin and her possibly wayward daughter, Signe, who goes to school in Satan's playground, otherwise known as The (Twin) Cities. And what Lutheran church would be complete without its pastor, charmingly played by William Christopher of "M*A*S*H" fame. The ladies cook and cry their way through funerals (preparing the infamous "Dead Spread" involving Cheese Whiz and olive sandwiches), lutefisk dinners and weddings.

The songs, written by Drew Jansen, are surprisingly witty and cover everything from the Lutheran penchant for the bland in "The Pale Food Polka" to hot flashes in "My Own Personal Island." The menopause jokes got the biggest laugh of the night, which may be most telling about the show's demographic.

The show is definitely played for laughs, and Karen Pappas as Mavis and Jean Liuzzi as Vivian Snustad get a lot of them. One deadpan look from Liuzzi has the audience in stitches, and Pappas' Mavis has a knack for getting her bum stuck in all the wrong places. But "Church Basement Ladies" has a heart, too, as the ladies mourn the passing of friends, husbands and the ways of the past. The mother-daughter pair, played by Margaret Curry and Stella Fasanello, provides an affecting counterpoint to the slapstick, and Fasanello has a delightful voice to boot.

"Church Basement Ladies" isn't just an exercise in nostalgia. Not yet. Somewhere nearby, the church kitchen is hopping, the faithful are waiting to be fed and redemption always comes with a side of lefse.

"Church Basement Ladies" runs through Aug. 31. For ticket information, go to www.overturecenter.com or call 258-4141.