Review: Church Basement Ladies at Beef and Boards Theatre

What happens in the church basement stays in the church basement. At least that is the unspoken mantra of the women in Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre’s latest Indianapolis theatre offering Church Basement Ladies. This quaint show follows four women as they volunteer year round in one Lutheran church in Minnesota during the mid 1960s. Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre presents Church Basement Ladies now September 3 at this north Indianapolis performing arts venue. A sweet and silly slice of life musical comedy, Church Basement Ladies features an amazing ensemble of four women and one man as they attempt to navigate the ups and downs of life in the church basement kitchen. Though the show is a bit  “behind the times,” it is nonetheless well written and well acted with cohesive direction.

This musical comedy, written by Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke with music and lyrics by Drew Jansen, premiered Off Off Broadway in 2005. Based on the novel Growing Up Lutheran by Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson, the specifics of the story may reflect the Lutheran religion, but overall themes and ideas reflect the challenges faced by any community or religious based group.

As director of the Beef and Boards production, Curt Wollan, explains, “This show is dedicated to those Steel Magnolias of the basement. You’ll find them in Catholic churches, Synagogues, Protestant churches, or any place where someone has to do the unheralded work of making the coffee, heating the hotdishes (casseroles) and dolloping the Jell-Os. They are your grandmothers,  your aunts and your mom. . .” Wollan’s love for the women on stage and his own female role models shines through in Church Basement Ladies. Set in the 1960s, these women are not only the makers of punch and coffee, they are the keepers of the church basement kitchen secrets, cooking and otherwise. Tightly bonded through years of working to keep church events running like a well oiled machine, these ladies follow a strict code of kitchen etiquette.

With no real plot to speak of, the show simply wafts from season to season depicting the important events of the ensemble’s and the church’s lives. Beginning with the Lutefisk feast, the audience is immediately indoctrinated into Lutheran culture by sheer gross factor alone, as we learn about lutefisk. This Norwegian dish serves up dried cod soaked in lye, then rinsed and boiled. Yum? Then onto the funeral of janitor Willie, the wordless handyman portrayed in the first scene off stage by clangs and bangs.

Act Two begins with a Hawaiian Easter fundraiser, where the women don hula skirts under their aprons and coconut bras over their Hawaiian shirts. And finally, the journey ends with the wedding of the youngest characters Signe. Through the years at hand, Mavis Gilmerson (Karen Pappas), Vivian Snusted (Licia Watson), Karin Engleson (Katherine Proctor), Signe Engleson (Lisa Bark) and Pastor Gunderson (Eddie Curry) sing and dance their way through each event.

The ensemble shines as a whole, working together to create wonderfully vivid moments of laughter and emotion. Yet, each member is a professional and a star in their own right. Personally, I enjoyed Karen Pappas in the role of Mavis the most. Most recently seen in High School Musical on the Beef and Boards stage, Pappas steals the show with every bit of comedy jammed into her role. As the hilarious historian of family history throughout the small Minnesotan town, Pappas has near perfect comedic timing and distinctly funny characterization.

In her best scene, her character stares down the business end of menopause flapping her skirt about the stage to flash the audience and the Pastor with her girdle. As she delivers her jokes with her rear jammed into the freezer, the audience roars with delight at her schtick. The charm of Pappas’ Mavis springs from her character’s fearlessness. With simple and blunt delivery, great comedic use of her affected Minnesotan accent and wonderful physicality, Pappas’ performance is simply a joy to receive.

With sharply contrasted characterization in the role of Mrs. Snustad, Licia Watson brings a very different kind of comedy to the table. Where Pappas flies around the stage garnering laugh after laugh with physical humor, Watson elicits just as much response remaining motionless. With the raise of an eyebrow, a jut of her chin or well timed sharp look, Watson manages to make the buttoned up Snustad an important part of the comedic fabric. In her featured song, “The Cities,” Watson makes amusing observations on the evils of city life. Dancing around on glowing red stage, she commits to her accusations in a way that makes you almost afraid of living in the city in an ironic and entertaining way.

As Karin Engleson, Katherine Proctor offered a nice balance between the older two women. This Jane Curtain look-a-like certainly brought a portion of Curtain’s comedic face to the stage. As the mother of Signe and the low man on the totem pole in the kitchen compared to Snustad and Mavis, Proctor’s Karin acts as a conductor for the feminine electricity created from generational tensions. Balancing the opinions of the other women in the room against her own ideas for raising her daughter, Proctor finds a way to make the scales continually equal as Karin. Though not a comedic star like Pappas and Watson, Proctor plays her role in the play as the crux of dramatic action perfectly.

As the fresh faced Signe, Lisa Bark plays the straight-man to the chaos of the kitchen. As in most group units, the youngest must take on the role of “student,” learning from the life lessons of the other women in the play. Bark is vivacious, cute and a window to the time period. With the least meat of all four women, her character’s dedication to home becomes the main motivating factor for her character.

Finally, Eddie Curry, as Pastor Gunderson, brings the only masculine energy to the stage full of church basement beauties. Faced with being an outsider in his own kitchen when it comes to “women issues” and the like, he is, as usual, hilarious. Though his one solo song, “Song for Willie,” seemed a bit beyond his range, Curry shined as an actor. Recently seen as another pastor on stage in Beef and Boards Footloose, his characterization is obviously completely different. As the cock of the roost, so to speak, Curry is a delight.

In all, Church Basement Ladies offers a sweet showing of life in one church basement kitchen. With a talented cast and a funny script, this show is worth while, especially for regular theatre goers to Beef and Boards. Don’t miss this hilarious musical comedy playing now through September 3 at Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre. Tickets to this Indianapolis arts event range between $35.00 and $58.00, which includes Chef Odell Ward’s specially prepared buffet, with fruit and salad bar, unlimited coffee, tea and lemonade.

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Church Basement Ladies
Now through September 3

Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre
9301 North Michigan Road
Indianapolis, IN 46288