Just in time for the holiest week in the Christian calendar, those crazy "Church Basement Ladies" dish up wacky laughs and nostalgic tears in "A Mighty Fortress Is Our Basement," opening tonight at Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, Rock Island.
This is the fourth in the popular series about a Lutheran congregation in Minnesota. Circa staged the original in 2007 and 2009, and the sequel, "A Second Helping," in March 2010. It hasn't yet done the Christmas show, "Away in a Basement," and director Curt Wollan and composer Drew Jansen are finishing up the fifth installment,set in 1979, called "The Last (Potluck) Supper," which will debut this summer in the Twin Cities.
"I'm absolutely thrilled that there is another episode in the lives of these hilarious ladies running the church basement," Circa owner/producer Denny Hitchcock said this week. "We have never had such a tremendous response from audience members during any show as we have from the Church Basement Ladies."
In "A Mighty Fortress," it's1960 and the four ladies are dealing with raising money for a youth trip, a flooded basement, an important confirmation and the wedding of Pastor Gunderson. As have all the other CBL shows at Circa, Mr. Wollan is directing and Mr. Jansen is music director. Mr. Wollan last directed "Southern Crossroads" here last year.
"It works in every state," Mr. Wollan said of the CBL musicals, to which people of all faiths can relate. "It's more fun in the Midwest because they really, really get it."
Inspired by Janet Martin and Suzann Nelson's book "Growing Up Lutheran," Ms. Martin said: "We all know that laughter is the best medicine, and I can guarantee you that this musical will get you laughing so hard, you'll forget about your aches and pains."
Mr. Wollan commissioned the first "Church Basement Ladies" after learning about the book. He wasdirecting the show "How To Talk Minnesotan: The Musical," (also with songs by Mr. Jansen), and his sister-in-law was buying a house from Ms. Martin's brother, who suggested doing a show about those Lutheran ladies. The first CBL opened in 2005 at Plymouth Playhouse outside Minneapolis; the sequel followed in 2007. Each new one follows every other year, and "A Mighty Fortress" opened in August 2011 -- Circa is just the third theater to do it.
Mr. Wollan first directed at Circa in 1983 (with "Diamond Studs," a musical about Jesse James), and this is the 25th production he's done here. He has known Mr.Hitchcock since 1975, when he worked for him at Pitchfork Playhouse in Viola.
Of CBL, "Catholics love it," the director said. "Catholics think it's hysterical. They think Lutherans are so naive and Lutherans think Catholics are so naive."
Mr. Jansen grew up Catholic and said he can totally relate to the characters. Every church has at least one member like those shown on stage, he said. "We hear it from our audiences; they identify with them," Mr. Jansen said.
Though his songs don't necessarily reflect the time period CBL stories are based, the composer said he writes eclectic scores, which he calls "pastiche musicals."
Mr. Wollan and Mr. Jansen met when the musician played auditions for the director, and then did a "Forbidden Broadway" tour with him in 1991. Afterward, they started collaborating on the Minnesota musical. Mr. Wollan is the longtime executive director of Troupe America, a Minneapolis based theatrical production company.
A September 2011 review at citypages.com said "Mighty Fortress" features a "good set of songs and some fun comic set pieces that are strung together mainly along the theme of 'reformation.'" The pastor's coming marriage, has the gang "in a tizzy of preparation and fear of the unknown (brought to life by elder Vivian, who doesn't like any kind of change, even in the serving plates)," the review said.
The biggest lesson they learn is that Catholics are not really all that much different, especially if their (nearly identical) church basement is any indication. A flooded Lutheran church basement forces the wedding to take place in the Catholic church.
The Star Tribune said: "The show's appeal to its audience has advanced beyond a gauzy nostalgia about people and places that probably existed only in vague memories. The familiarity of the characters themselves -- no matter what they are doing -- has risen to the top."
Circa hashad two returning cast members who have been in every production of CBL at Circa -- Tom Walljasper as the pastor and Nicole Savitt as Mavis. The cast includes another Circa veteran, Carrie SaLoutos, who was seen in "Mid-Life! The Crisis Musical," "The Dixie Swim Club" and "Whodunit…The Musical," as well as local newcomers Kay Francis and Kimberly Steffen.
In the new CBL 5, the church will close for good --based on a real Lutheran church in southwestern Minnesota, the subject of a 2002 documentary. The building is hauled away, Mr. Wollan noted, but the basement remains -- the church's one foundation.
If you go
-- What: "A Mighty Fortress Is Our Basement"
-- When: Tonight through June 1; Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:45 p.m. (buffet dinner served from 6 to 7 p.m.), Sundays at 5:45 p.m. (buffet dinner served from 4 to 5 p.m.) and Wednesday matinees at 1:30 p.m. (plated lunch served 12 to 12:45 p.m.).
-- Where: Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.
-- Tickets: Dinner and show are $48.07 for the evening performances and $42.32 for the matinees, available at 309-786-7733, ext. 2, or circa21.com.
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