Monday, June 27, 2011

A Vintage mid-Century Sitcom from Five Years Ago

Marcus Center’s CHURCH BASEMENT LADIES a contemporary musical theatre piece in the style of an old sitcom.

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Written only less than ten years ago, Drew Jansen, Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke’s stage musical Church Basement Ladies is kind of an odd mid-twentieth century comic fugue. Set in 1965, the show feels a lot more like a radio sitcom from the ‘40’s or ‘50’s. For those with the right kind of comic sensitivity, it’s pleasantly disorienting in places. For everyone else it’s lightly inconsequential comedy with just a hint of something deeper. The Marcus Center’s production juggles the specifics of the musical quite well in a staging that has settled-in to Vogel Hall for a fair amount of the summer of 2011.

Inspired by the novel Growing Up Lutheran, Church Basement Ladies builds much of its comedy around cultural specifics of Minnesotan Lutheran culture. The script gets quite a bit of mileage out of this. It’s able to generate laughs by mentioning lutefisk, lefse and the very provincial differences between Lutherans and Catholics.

There’s plenty of time-honored comedy beyond the culturally-specific humor. The show’s plot concerns an intergenerational group of women who prepare food in the basement of a Lutheran church in rural Minnesota. The ensemble is a very tidy representation of four generations:

Milwaukee theatre veteran Jenny Wanasek plays Vivian from the oldest generation: a post-menopausal woman who is being forced to accept that the church is changing. Wanasek is given some of the more serious moments among the ladies and she handles it quite well. The fact that she is able to make the character’s harsh, judgmental side seem kind of charming speaks to her capabilities onstage.

Beth Mulkerron plays Signe from the youngest generation—a baby boomer who has just gone off to college. If all goes well, she’ll be graduating in . . . 1969, which makes her part of kind of an influential generation in the history of the 20th century. Here we see her fierce loyalty to family somewhat at odds with the generally progressive nature of the time. This being Minnesota- it’s not a huge rebellion, but she IS dating a Catholic . . . she’s an interesting character and Mulkerron’s performance expands on some of the depth she is allowed in the script. Where the character lacks depth, Mulkerron is able to get in touch with her emotional side.

Kay Stiefel plays Signe’s mother Karin. The mother of a girl who has gone off to college, Karin is balances a pride in the traditions of the culture against a less than strict maternal posture that gives her kind of a close relationship with her mother. She runs into conflict with Vivian as a result of this, which adds a bit of conflict within the group. Stiefel plays the role with a solidly respectable maternalism. She’s kind of an earthbound Donna Reed who capably holds the center of the ensemble generational spectrum. 

Rhonda Rae Busch provides much of the show’s physical humor in the role of Mavis—a sturdy menopausal woman. Much of the physical humor involves the fact that the character is menopausal—a source of comic material that doesn’t get mined a whole lot in popular comedy, which is often focused on youth. That doesn’t necessarily make it funny, but it IS something that audiences seem to love and Rhonda Rae Busch carries the physical end of the humor with a solid sense of respect for the character. Played with a less sympathetic approach, the character would’ve come across as a weak stereotype. Rhonda Rae Busch fiercely avoids that in a strong performance.

The play firmly grounds itself in its church basement setting with a frequently-appering Norman Moses in the role of the church’s Pastor Gunderson. Moses has a great deal of experience with comedy onstage. His timing and delivery are remarkably precise here. The character has a few moments to delve into a more serious end of things and Moses makes the transition remarkably well. It’s interesting seeing him in another comedy like this—Norman Moses has the specific vocal quality, enunciation and diction of someone who would’ve appeared on a regular radio sitcom in the ‘40’s or ‘50’s—kind of a toned-down Jack Benny. It’s a presence that has added quite a bit of vintage atmosphere to quite a few productions over the years. The character of the pastor couldn’t be less like Jack Benny. He’s a real nice guy--a really pious pastor. He’s re-married after the passing of his wife. The age difference between he and his wife is some cause for gossip, but he’s precisely the kind of nice guy that Moses is so good at bringing to the stage.

The old radio sitcom feel of much of the humor  is at odds with the mid-‘60’s era that the story is set in AND the contemporary musical feel of the show. It's all balanced well enough that the clashing eras don't work against the overall production. The mixture is familiar enough to be theatrical comfort food for anyone looking for light comic entertainment. It’s a two-act show with two scenes per act, but it feels very much like watching four episodes of an old sitcom back-to-back. There’s a kind of a casual appeal in seeing that live. It might not be hugely satisfying for everyone, but there’s no question that Church Basement Ladies should appeal to more than enough people to continue a financially successful run through early August.

Church Basement Ladies runs through August 7th at the Marcus Center’s Vogel Hall. For reservations, call 414-273-7206.

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