When Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson published their book Growing Up Lutheran it is unlikely they expected it to spawn the Church Basement Ladies series of plays: not one, not two, but five musical plays have enjoyed considerable success, even in parts of the country not known for their Norwegian Lutheran population. Currently at Old Creamery Theatre is what purports to be the last (potluck, of course) supper with the Church Basement Ladies. There are four of them, representing at least three generations: Vivian, the senior member of the troupe, Beverly and her daughter Karin, and Mavis, the irrepressible farmer. Rounding out the small cast is Pastor, who returns from The Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul) for the centennial celebration of the church.
The Church Basement Ladies are not themselves solely responsible for the food (potluck, remember), but they are unquestionably in charge of the kitchen. Led by Vivian (Kay Francis), the ladies supervise their kitchen domain from the linens and flatware to the omnipresent coffee pot. They are quite capable of passing judgment on the food prepared by other members of the Lutheran community, even to the extent of accepting the contribution but refusing to serve it. I had the opportunity to observe Lutheran church basement ladies in my youth, but they were Swedish Lutherans whereas these are Norwegian Lutheran ladies, every bit as committed to their ways at the Norwegian bachelor farmers in Garrison Keillor’s town of Lake Wobegon (probably equidistant from and equally suspicious of The Cities).
Old Creamery Theatre has assembled a talented and experienced cast for this production of The Church Basement Ladies in: The Last (Potluck) Supper (written by Greta Grosch, with music and lyrics by Drew Jansen). Sean McCall portrays Pastor who, soon after his second marriage after years as a widower, has moved to The Cities but returns for this celebration. Vivian, who adored his first wife, has not cottoned to the second wife, which probably had something to do with his move as Vivian never misses an opportunity to praise Wife Number One, with nothing good to say or think about Wife Number Two. And what Vivian thinks, she usually says aloud and in company. Vivian’s redeeming qualities are a tenderness which she usually conceals. Kay Francis is entirely convincing as the matriarch of the group, and the possesses a strong voice to express her thoughts. Miss Francis is also possessed of a lovely singing voice of remarkable range and power, making a strong contribution to the group musical numbers and to great effect in her solos.
Sean McCall’s Pastor is familiar to anyone who has seen previous Church Basement Ladies productions and his singing and dancing are terrific, as we have come to expect. This production gives him some additional duties, which he discharges with his considerable and customary skill, including an ancient Norwegian farmer who appears with Miss Francis in flashback scenes from 1879, and as the fast-talking auctioneer presiding over the sale of church artifacts now that the church has reluctantly faced the truth that the time has come to disband.
Katie Colletta’s Beverly and her daughter Karin (Carrie SaLoutos)are vibrant and interesting members of the group, especially when we remember a rather defiant teenager from previous productions and her long-suffering mother. Now Karin is married and a mother herself, so she may have mellowed a bit, but she is still an independent thinker not always reflecting her mother’s opinions. Both sing well and shine in the dance numbers, especially in “The 24-Hour Mom-Bo.”
And then there is Mavis (Nikki Savit) the uninhibited farmer and a veteran of all five Church Basement Ladies productions. Whether entering through the door in her chore boots or struggling through the basement window, Mavis is a champion of the unexpected. Despite Mavis’s unconventional behaviors, Nikki Savitt is also very capable of bringing out Mavis’s concern for her basement “sisters” and it is she who hints that in spite of this show’s title we may not have heard the last from these ladies. As she says, “We have lots more stories.”
Deftly directed by Curt Wollan in his fifth outing with the basement ladies, the production is well paced and respectful of the traditions these ladies are determined to honor and carry on. In his hands, the show is a delightful experience even if you didn’t grow up Lutheran.
The production runs through November 8. Go here for tickets.