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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Theatre Review by Craig Nolan Highley: "Church Basement Ladies" at Derby Dinner Playhouse





Derby Dinner Playhouse and artistic director Bekki Jo Schneider certainly know their audience. They are intimately aware of what that audience wants and Derby Dinner keeps right on serving it to them. I say that because, during the performance I attended of their latest, Church Basement Ladies, there were many times the rest of the audience was erupting into uproarious laughter while I sat there thinking I was not in on the joke.

That’s not to say I wasn’t entertained; Church Basement Ladies is a cute show with some really strong performances by its five-member cast: Janet Essenpreis, Michelle Johnson, Rita Thomas, Tina Jo Wallace, and Cary Wiger, who not only belt out a dozen songs but also prove adept at some quite complicated physical comedy.

And along with past productions like Nunsense, Smoke on the Mountain, Sing Hallujah! and the like, it is continuing with what is becoming a tradition for the playhouse: shows for the faith-based audience that don’t ladle on the spirituality too thick for non-churchgoing crowds.

Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke created the musical primarily from the novel Growing Up Lutheran with input from some other books by Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson (also known as the Lutheran Ladies). The show had its off-off-Broadway premiere in 2005 and has become so popular it has already spawned three sequels (almost unheard of in stage shows, especially in such a short span of years). It’s comprised of four scenes that cover the course of a year in the lives of  four women who prepare the food for church functions, with all the bickering, judging and gossiping you’d expect.

Rita Thomas is a hoot as Mrs. Snustad, the matron of the kitchen, and gets some of the show’s best lines delivering her judgments on such subjects as the pastor’s new young wife and the fact that one of the other ladies is dating a (gasp!) Catholic.  Janet Essenpreis and Michelle Wagoner Johnson, as mother and daughter Karin and Signe Engelson, give the show some warmth and compassion. But the standout performance is given by Tina Jo Wallace as the mercilessly menopausal Mavis Gilmerson, giving rise to some of the most acrobatic hot flashes you are ever likely to see.

It’s interesting to note that the smallest role in the cast is the only one to have attracted any star performers; in other productions both M*A*S*H’s William Christopher and The Brady Bunch’s Barry Williams have headlined as Pastor Gunderson. In this version we get one of Derby Dinner’s most familiar faces, the always reliable Cary Wiger, and he certainly makes the most of the role. In fact, his solo number “Song for Willie” is the only number that left a lasting impression.

The musical numbers by Drew Jensen are, on the whole, where the show falls short; the cast performs them gamely but I’m hard pressed to remember any of them other than “Song for Willie.” There are also a lot of jokes and gags that will go right over your head if you aren’t a regular church-goer (they certainly went over mine). I was also a little put off by the very fake-sounding Northern accents by every single member of the cast (you could make a drinking game out of all the “yah’s” and “you betcha’s”) Overall I was reminded of a combination of Nunsense and Radio Gals, although those are both much better shows.

On the whole, it was a fun evening if you are not too discriminating. Not one of the playhouse’s best choices of material, but performed with all the professionalism and fun we’ve come to expect from them over the years.

Church Basement Ladies, directed by Bekki Jo Schneider, continues at Derby Dinner Playhouse through September 25, 2011. The Theatre is located at 525 Marriott Drive, Clarksville, IN. Get your tickets by calling 812.288.8281 or online at www.derbydinner.com.



Entire contents are copyright © 2011, Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.

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