Book by Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke, Music & Lyrics by Drew Jansen
Janet Martin wrote the hilarious book Growing Up Lutheran, which served as the impetus for the even funnier musical Church Basement Ladies. Having grown up in a Lutheran Church, it was easy to see where the power structure lies—in the basement, where the women toil away preparing the meals, offering advice, and serving up the best lemon bars known to man. There wasn’t a problem I could bring to them that couldn’t be solved by some tough love and compassionate understanding.
The characters brought to life in Church Basement Ladies are all iconic archetypes of the women I met in my church. Signe (Tara Borman) is a young, vibrant college student who represents new ways of thinking in the church. Karin (Lee Anne Matthews) is Signe’s mother who serves as the bridge between the new and the old as she is constantly defending her daughter’s views while appeasing the elder church ladies. Mavis (Shannon Herman) is the workhorse of the group, whose positive, can-do attitude was inspiring. Then there is Vivian (Janet Paone), the matriarch of the group, who offers sage advice and resists the changes happenings in the church.
The women, along with Paster Gunderson (Greg Eiden), are preparing for the upcoming Lutefisk dinner (which keeps growing in numbers), a failing boiler, an unexpected death, and nuptials with a very nervous bride. While these events could be devastating in their own right, Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke take a lighthearted approach by giving the ladies an amazing amount of grace under pressure and overwhelming compassion. Drew Jansen’s songs compliment the story brilliantly as they tickle your funny bone and tug on your heartstrings.
Borman, as Signe, was a breath of fresh air. Her delightful delivery mixed with her sunny disposition made her performance shine. Her ability to keep up with the other three actresses proves her mettle as a talented actress. In the role of Mavis, Herman brought the funny with her hilarious physical comedy and her charming deadpan delivery. Her performance of “My Own Personal Island” brought the house down.
Matthews as Karin gave the most even-handed performance of the night. Her knowing smile and ability to land a joke with a straight face was magnificent. Where Matthews truly shined was in her vocals. Numbers such as “This Is Most Certainly True” and “Get Down To Business” were highlights of the production.
Paone was heavenly in the role of Vivian Snustad. She rules the kitchen with an iron fist and a tender heart. With one arch of her eyebrow she can throw some serious shade and with a pat of her heart she can seem vulnerable and endearing. Her performance was emotionally authentic as she filled each of her numbers with her joyful heart.
While each of these ladies did an outstanding job in each of their roles, when they combined as an ensemble the result was divine. The harmonies of this talented cast were inspirational. These actresses obviously enjoy playing these roles and it shows. Combine these exceptional performances with the arsenal of captivating musical numbers as well the captivating choreography and Church Basement Ladies is transcendent triumph. Hopefully the Playhouse at Westport Plaza will bring one of the other five sequels in the Church Basement Ladies series to St. Louis. This production earns a rating of five out of five halos.│ Jim Ryan