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Friday, August 17, 2012

Return to the Church Basement at Derby Dinner: The Ladies Are Still Funny


Church Basement Ladies 2, A Second Helping

Written by Greta Grosch
Music & Lyrics by Dennis Curley & Drew Jansen
Directed by Bekki Jo Schneider


A review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Keith Waits. All rights reserved. 

Elizabeth Loos, Janet Essenpreis, Michelle Johnson &
Tina Jo Wallace in Church Basement Ladies 2.
Photo courtesy of Derby Dinner Playhouse.

I must confess that I spent a fair share of my childhood hanging on the apron strings of just such a woman as is depicted in this play. The setting here may be Minnesota and the particulars very specific to the Scandinavian/Lutheran heritage of that region. But the stern and sturdy values of most Protestant denominations could be just as severe and judgmental, or warm and comforting, as what is currently on display at Derby Dinner Playhouse. So this company’s base of support, which includes a steady trade in church groups travelling in by the busload (such a group in attendance Thursday night laughed harder than anyone), should easily connect to the action onstage and recognize themselves in these characters.

The simple story follows three such ladies, Vivian Snustad (Elizabeth Loos), Mavis Gilmerson (Tina Jo Wallace) and Karin Engelson (Janet Essenpreis). They are soon joined by Karin’s daughter, Beverly Signe Engelson Hauge (Michelle Johnson), who has recently relocated back home with her husband and a surprise announcement. She is, of course, immediately pressed into service providing comfort food for church events for the genial Pastor Gunderson (Cary Wiger). The script follows the format of the original in balancing broadly drawn physical comedy with simple, heart-warming character development. If it lacks a certain dramatic momentum at the end that makes for an underwhelming denouement, it knows how to deliver enough fun and silliness to satisfy.

It is a largely unchallenging formula that asks little of its audience: the theatrical equivalent of the fried chicken and casserole comfort food that are the stock in trade of these women. The script is a defiantly middle-of-the-road piece peppered with just enough PG-rated, ribald jokes to break up the bland, nostalgic center. A few of the gags are repeated once too often, but there is a well-considered dose of pathos that is handled with enough restraint to balance out the excess.

Yet, as is customary at Derby Dinner, director Bekki Jo Schneider brings a practiced hand to both her casting choices and her handling of the players. If the action calls for redundancy, particularly in the physical gags, they are still delivered with sure timing and commitment by the ensemble. They were all fine, but Tina Jo Wallace steals the show with a gleeful, if shameless, presentation of physical comedy reminiscent of Carol Burnett in her prime. Yet as broad as her playing was, there was also a degree of consistent observation in her physical presence that made hers the most fully dimensional character onstage. Elizabeth Loos caps off her conservative wet blanket character with a forceful of rendering of the second act number, “Vivian’s Bad Trip,” and she has a hilarious moment with the thoughtful re-tasking of kitchen utensils for a purpose they were never intended for that must be seen to be believed.

The music is tuneful enough but of inconsistent quality, yet it must be said that the weak songs never overstay their welcome. The period setting of 1970 is used to elicit some easy laughs about hippies and Richard Nixon; and the costumes by Sharon Murray Harrah seem accurate and evocative without being a caricature, always a risk with this time frame. It was interesting to note that several of the costume colors were remarkably close to those of the fixtures that made up the clean and uncluttered set design. While greater contrast between the two might have seemed more dynamic, the soothing nature of the analogous palate suited the material and made the few bolder choices more impactful.

In the end, the return of the Church Basement Ladies is a perfect fit for Derby Dinner: funny, heartfelt and mostly suitable for all ages (a few of the more adult jokes are likely to sail right over the heads of little ones. It is certain to be a crowd-pleasing end to their current season.

Church Basement Ladies 2, A Second Helping

August 14 through October 7, 2012
Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive
Clarksville, IN 47129
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