La Comedia opens 2021 season with 'Church Basement Ladies'

Russell Florence Jr., Dayton Daily News, Ohio
·4 min read

Apr. 4—Easter is the perfect time to get to know "Church Basement Ladies," the 2005 musical comedy by composer/lyricist Drew Jansen and librettists Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke continuing through Sunday, April 18 at La Comedia Dinner Theatre in Springboro.

Set in a rural Minnesota church in 1964 and inspired by Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson's 1967 book "Growing Up Lutheran, "Church Basement Ladies" spotlights the dedication, compatibility and charm of four women faithfully serving their congregation. An elderly, conservative matriarch and a young bride-to-be are among those preparing food and solving problems inside the all-important domain of the kitchen. Songs include "Closer to Heaven (in the Church Basement)," "The Pale Food Polka," "Get Down to Business," "My Own Personal Island," and "Mother of the Bride."

Akin to "Nunsense," "Church Basement Ladies" has spawned numerous sequels, but La Comedia, no stranger to the material having staged four of the sequels, is returning to the original version for the first time since 2010.

"Every church has their church ladies," said director/choreographer Chris Beiser. "The show is set in a Lutheran church but Baptists, Catholics, Methodists and (other denominations) can (relate). Each lady in the show has a very interesting personality as well so when you put all of those personalities in the kitchen wild antics ensue."

Beiser also notes the musical's conceptual similarities to "Steel Magnolias," another crowd-pleasing example of colorful women bonded within a multigenerational story of sisterhood.

"You really get to know these women in the course of two hours," he said. "You find out about their backgrounds — why they're at the church, why they're working in the kitchen — which allows you to feel very welcomed in their presence. Like the women in 'Steel Magnolias,' these ladies have been together for years. And one of the women, the youngest, reflects the theme of the older women bringing her up to teach her the lessons of the kitchen as she grows to take her place within the group."

"People recognize these characters in their own lives," said Claire Sherer, reprising the role of humorous housewife Mavis Gilmerson for the fourth time. "There is unity through service for these ladies. They have chosen to serve God, their parishioners and their community in this (fashion). They enjoy their service and become a mini-family themselves. They may have differences but they love each other in their own way. There is also a scene devoted to change, the acceptance of change, and how each one of us approaches it differently. The scene is about singing a new song a different way. Same notes, same message, but different. The scene (resonates) because it's hard for some churches to embrace change."

The cast includes Denise Cox as Vivian Snustad, Hannah Brown as Signe (Beverly) Engleson, Cheryl Salzman as Karin Engelson and Chris Kramer as Pastor Gunderson.

La Comedia's season will continue with "The Sound of Music" (April 22-June 13), Disney's "The Little Mermaid" (June 17-Aug. 15), "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" (Aug. 19-Sept. 19), "Footloose" (Sept. 23-Oct. 31), and "A Christmas Story: The Musical" (Nov. 4-Dec. 30). Beiser hopes "Church Basement Ladies" is an enticing, entertaining option as the organization assesses its future within the ongoing COVID-19 climate.

"We're hoping this show helps all of us get back to normal," he said. "'Church Basement Ladies' begins a season we hope people will want to come out and see. We're offering light, fun musicals (in order to) get people back into our seats again."

"'Church Basement Ladies' is such a sweet show, a great show," Sherer added. "The audience knows these characters because they've seen the sequels. There is total joy and happiness in this show. Audiences are leaving feeling exuberant, touched, blessed and joyful. And there's nothing like live theater."

How to go

What: "Church Basement Ladies"

Where: La Comedia Dinner Theatre, 765 W. Central Ave., Springboro

When: Through April 18; Performances are Thursdays-Sundays including matinees

Cost: $35-$74

Tickets: Call 1-800-677-9505 or 937-746-4554 or visit lacomedia.com

The show is performed in two acts with one intermission. Masks are required and must be particularly worn during the performance.

Contact this contributing writer at rflorence2@gmail.com.